A Barbara Kingsolver novel can often be defined in just one word: captivating. In her first work of fiction in nearly a decade, The Lacuna delivers (in true Kingsolver style) with intricate characters, potent settings, and a sturdy construction built on extensive research. The end result seems so effortless, but Kingsolver’s strength in The Lacuna lies in her use of an unassuming main character by the name of Harrison William Shepherd to viscerally guide the reader through pivotal historical events in Mexico and the United States beginning in the late 1920s through the early 1940s.
The story of Shepherd’s life is that he belongs nowhere and to nobody. Born in Virginia to a small-time federal employee and a Mexican flapper, Shepherd’s entire life experience is shaped by always feeling like a foreigner no matter where he lives. Matters aren’t helped by having parents who show little interest in him (Shepherd’s friend Leandro comments, “Mi’jo…your mother can’t even remember the day she gave you birth.”), and he exists perpetually on the periphery due to his reclusiveness and homosexuality.
Yet in Shepherd, who is naturally drawn to and gifted at writing, the reader has the perfect observer in the tumultuous events that surround his life. Although he tries his best to live an unassuming life, his talents lead him to fascinating interactions with historical figures like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky. Later in his life, he becomes part of history as a famous American writer.
What’s incredible about Shepherd is that he never has an agenda. While he does care deeply for Kahlo, Trotsky, and Rivera, he never becomes immersed in any ideology to the same degree as his friends. In fact, when he eventually moves to the United States, Shepherd always seems to give his birth country the benefit of the doubt. For instance, Shepherd responds to a letter from Kahlo regarding the Japanese internment by writing, “Don’t listen to nonsense, Frida. The idea of putting American Japanese in concentration camps is fantastical…Have faith in our Mr. Roosevelt…he is our own kind of Lenin, charting the new American Revolution.”
But despite Shepherd’s faith in the American government and his struggle against celebrity once he becomes a famous author, the sweeping effect of senator Joseph McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts eventually set their sights on Shepherd. It starts small with an article about Shepherd containing false information about his political beliefs and then snowballs until his fans nationwide have joined the crusade against him. The scene is reminiscent of recent history where campaigns were led against musicians who voiced anti-war sentiments, and events like bulldozing a pile of Dixie Chicks CDs became a threatening way to silence artists unless they wanted to risk their careers. Even one of the few close friends Shepherd has completely severs their relationship after learning of Shepherd’s supposed political leanings without asking for Shepherd’s side of the story.
Shepherd’s story is a telling reminder of how easily some become swept up in a political ideology without really knowing any of its substance. Kingsolver summarizes this beautifully through Shepherd’s friend and legal advisor, Artie Gold. Gold says, “What these men are doing could become permanent…You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap. No boldness. No good ideas for fixing what’s broken in the land. Because if you happen to mention it’s broken, you are automatically disqualified.”
Although the story is mainly told through diary entries and letters written by Shepherd, Kingsolver illuminates this time in history. Despite much of the novel being politically oriented, it does not sway toward becoming preachy. Instead, the reader is left with a beautifully written story and many questions to ponder.