“The Lacuna,” by Barbara Kingsolver, is a superb novel that covers three turbulent decades from the 1920s through The 1950s.
Born in the United States, Harrison Shephard is a teenager when his parents divorce. Salomé, his beautiful Mexican mother, leaves his staid and bureaucratic American father and takes Harry to Mexico to an isolated Mexican island, Isla Pixol, where she despairs that her lover, a rich oil man, will never marry her. But Salomé continues to pursue any wealthy man willing to take her as a mistress.
Harry is generally ignored by his selfish, self-destructive mother, who soon misses the good life. She shuttles her son between his father in the States and Mexico. There are also no schools, so Harry is left to educate himself by reading everything in the house. His only companion is Leandro, the cook, who teaches Harry the art of making pan dulce.
Eventually Salomé gives up on the oil man and takes up with another rich man. She moves with her son to a “Casa Chica” in Mexico City. Harry has missed so much formal schooling that he cannot qualify for anything except the school for delinquents, and he is too smart and well read for that.
Salomé’s “little houses” keep getting smaller with each subsequent lover, so Harry sets out to find a job. Eventually,
he becomes a plasterer for Diego Rivera. All those cooking lessons pay off:
He can blend flour; he can blend plaster.
Thus begins his two-decade relationship with Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, both communists. Rivera was frequently on bad terms with both the Mexican Communist Party and with the official Communists of the Soviet Union. He was finally expelled by the Party.
In the late 30s, Rivera takes Leon Trotsky and his wife, Natalia, into their home in Coyoacan, Mexico, as the exiles were in fear of execution by Stalin. Rivera and Trotsky become good friends, and Harry, with his knowledge of both Spanish and English, becomes their stenographer and assistant.
When Trotsky is assassinated, Harrison Shepard returns to the United States and settles in North Carolina, where he is acknowledged as a writer, only to become a target of A McCarthy “un-American” investigation.
Politics and art dominate this novel. Diego Rivera is famous for his boldly colored murals with revolutionary or nationalistic themes that often portray the working man and Mestizo Mexicans breaking their chains of servitude. A rich history is created with Harry’s diary entries, memoirs and actual newspaper articles, letters and congressional transcripts. Stalin was the enemy to Trotsky, but an ally at the time of the U.S. as this country headed into World War II.
It was a complicated time and the author ponders what the world might have been like if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin instead of Stalin. Barbara Kingsolver offers a glance at the artists of the 1930s, the Mexican Revolution and the McCarthy era.