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The Lacuna    by Barbara Kingsolver order for
by Barbara Kingsolver
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Harper, 2009 (2009)
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* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Harrison Shepherd, the hero of Barbara Kingsolver's newest book, The Lacuna, is caught between two worlds, not entirely at home in either. His father was an American who had married a much younger woman from Mexico, and Harrison was born in the United States, living there until he was twelve years old. His parents' marriage fell apart at that time, and his mother took him back to live in Mexico, where he spent most of his growing up years. She sent him back to his father to be educated and he was boarded at a private school for several years, but he returned to Mexico just short of high school graduation, after a mysterious incident for which he was expelled.

The book is partially narrated by a woman named Violet Brown whom we later meet when she goes to work for the adult Mr. Shepherd as personal secretary. Interspersed with her narration are excerpts from Shepherd's journals and letters, all of which together tell the story of boy and man during his interesting youth and later career as a writer of novels. As a boy, Shepherd meets the artist Frida Kahlo in the marketplace, where he sees her trying to carry too many purchases by herself and offers to help. He then becomes a mixer of plaster for her husband, Diego Rivera, who is working on a mural and complains that none of his employees knows how to mix plaster properly. Because Shepherd has learned how to mix pastries properly from one of his mother's cooks, he can also mix smooth plaster, and so begins his employment with the great artist.

Shepherd's time in Mexico with famous people comes back to haunt him later in life when he's living in North Carolina and writing extremely popular books about the Aztecs and Mayans. The story progresses in such a quiet, ordinary way that the occasional violence shocks, even as it propels events abruptly in new directions. Violet Brown and Harrison Shepherd become close friends, drawn to each other by their love of reading and open-mindedness. At one point, Violet, who has been a member of the Asheville Woman's Club, arranges for an exchange student from Russia as a Cultural Evening speaker, during the period after World War II when the former ally of the U.S. has become the enemy. People walk out of the meeting in a huff and the newspaper writes it up with the title 'Crowd Takes Stand against Reds.' Violet's response to this is, 'The world has people of all kinds, and I don't see the good of wrapping our children's heads in cotton wool.'

The book is long and shouldn't be rushed, as there are many things to ponder. How similar is the political animosity and the fear of communists to events of the present. Although the witch hunts of the red scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee were worse, by far, than anything going on in the United States at the present time, one wonders why each time there's dissent in this country, someone is going to run around screaming that it's un-American to say this or that.

I must admit that I've read all of Kingsolver's novels and continue to enjoy her writing. I liked the fictional characters better than the historical. Perhaps it's easier to make up characters to be believable and likeable than to try to turn real people into characters in a novel. At any rate, I liked Harrison Shepherd and Violet Brown exceedingly well and enjoyed the story of this fictional storyteller.

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