My experience with reading Barbara Kingsolver has been uneven. Her first books were interesting and heartwarming, but some of her later work is more political and sometimes degenerates to lecturing on certain causes. However, The Lacuna is an absolutely enthralling historical novel.
Harrison Shepherd is a young man, half Mexican and half American, who survives an upbringing by a feckless mother and a cold father and finally begins making his own way in 1930’s Mexico. He finds a job working in Diego Rivera’s kitchen and ends up as the cook and plaster mixer in Rivera’s household with Frida Kahlo. Later, when they give Leon Trotsky a home, Shepherd works for Trotsky as a secretary and translator, and finally he returns to the United States to write Aztec historical potboilers.
The novel covers major historical events in a turbulent period, including the Communist Worker’s Movement, Trotsky’s assassination, FDR’s terms in Washington, World War II, and the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Although Shepherd’s life is extraordinary by any standards, Kingsolver was able to make it feel absolutely persuasive. While I usually dislike historical novels where ordinary people keep running into famous people, I completely accepted every sentence of this book.
Told by diary entries, newspaper articles, and letters, the novel gets going a little slowly, but eventually enthralls. Kingsolver does a great job of creating colorful and believable characters from the lives of real, historic people, something that is not simple, and completely involves readers in the events of their lives.