Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna

I have long held the notion that if Barbara Kingsolver created it, it is worthy of my most careful attention.  I have read all her published work (I think!) and own most of the collection.  I even have a withered and torn clipping from The Roanoke Times - an editorial piece she submitted as a response to the particular brand of patriotism being sold to Americans in the days after 9/11.  Her words have encouraged me in my quest to feed my family well (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), my understanding of the beautiful symbiotic relationships on my family's farm (Prodigal Summer), and in my identity as a woman, a writer, a mother, an American, and an environmentalist (pretty much everything she has written).  She even helped me break a bizarre fascination with "Dawson's Creek" in the days immediately following the birth of my first child (Small Wonder).  To say I owe her a lot is an understatement.

Also of interest is that she lives around the corner from my beloved college (though she spent more of her time in AZ when I was there), and she and her family have been instrumental in some exciting developments in the area.  She was this year's commencement speaker and is going to be the guest of honor at the college's literary festival this fall.

So why in heaven's name did I not have The Lacuna pre-ordered and gobbled up within moments of its publication?  Why did I listen to the reviewers who felt it was not as good as her previous work?  Why did I let them keep me from reading this amazing continuation of Kingsolver's conversation with the world around her?  I don't know why I waited, but now that I've read it, let me be a dissenting voice among many around the blogosphere: It more than measured up.

The Lacuna is at its core about the life of a man, Harrison William Shepherd, who was born in Virginia to an American father and a Mexican mother.  The novel opens as he returns to Mexico with his mother as a young boy and concludes after his death at an early age.  Shepherd is known by many names throughout the book (Will, Harry, Shep, Soli) and seems to have lead many lives along the course of his days, recounted in his journals and letters.  The book's structure is interesting in that it is crafted in the style of a posthumous autobiography of Shepherd, a once-famous writer.  His secretary, Violet Brown, preserved his personal writings and compiled these documents in the form of a book to be published 50 years after her death.  It is a unique structure that works well as a tool for conveying many different perspectives (from news articles, letters, reviews, and of course, the journals) on the times and places Shepherd inhabited.  It is often billed as historical fiction for the way it intertwines truth with fiction in the United States and Mexico.  I think that is a misnomer, for though it uses history gorgeously, it is much more than just an outsider's observations of past events.  Read that way, I can see why some might feel it is boring.  I also think that reading is a damaging simplification of a complex work.

It is the life of this man.  And it is not.  It is also Kingsolver's post-9/11 novel, a beautifully nuanced and skillfully layered indictment of the ways in which we allow fear to direct our policy, our communities, and our personal interactions.  By using the 1950s McCarthyism era as a mirror, Kingsolver is able to reflect our own hysteria, our misguided attacks on one another and make it quietly sing a song of rebuke.  This is what Kingsolver is so good at (although some - not me - argue that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle went too far in its proselytizing).  She can redirect you with her quiet passion and move you to actions you didn't know you needed to take.  And for me, who already agrees with her most of the time, her words strengthen my resolve to do something, say something, or change something - to make my own points.

The crazy-good thing about this book is that the writer whose life she chronicles in The Lacuna does the same thing.  By writing books about the Aztec or the Mayan peoples, he has a vehicle by which he can examine and question the world around him - and it is one of the things that gets him in trouble.  For example, when he allows his characters to question their leaders, he opens himself up to being viewed as an incendiary plotting to overthrow the government.  It speaks to the power of words, whether spoken or written, and the great strength that comes from wielding them well.  Here's one excellent exchange between Shepherd and his lawyer, Artie:
[Artie] leaned forward, his blue eyes watery, feverish looking.  He held up both hands as if he meant to clasp my face between them.  "You know what the issue is?  Do you want to know?  It's what these guys have decided to call America.  They have the audacity to say, 'There, you sons of bitches, don't lay a finger on it.  That is a finished product!'"
"But any country is still in the making.   Always.  That's just history, people have to see that."
And a few moments later:
Suddenly he looked weary.  "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." (424-425)
It really is a thought-provoking and powerfully good book.

I borrowed this book from a friend, so I didn't mark up passages, but I feel that I wouldn't have marked many anyhow.  Its greatness falls not in the individual sentence or phrase (although there were several great ones); rather, it is in the structure, the design, the importance of the message, and the complexity of this book.  If you previously cast this book aside based on the negative reviews, I urge you to give it a try.  Sharing our thoughts on a blog does allow us to spread the word about books we love and books to avoid, but it can be a dangerous power.  I hate to think of all those who will never try this book based on some readers' responses.  I am glad to have found the evidence against this book to be lacking.  It has been a joy to have learned from Kingsolver again.

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