History’s Personal Costs

When she illustrates history’s personal costs, Barbara Kingsolver, in her 2007 historical novel The Lacuna, makes history come. alive. She tackles Mexico’s culture from the sixteenth century Aztecs’ battles with Montezuma to the exile of L. D. Trotsky in Mexico during the 1930s and beyond, into twentieth century North American politics. What makes it so powerful is the author’s personal approach to history.

What is the lacuna?

According to Merriam-Webster, a lacuna is literally a small cavity, pit or discontinuity in an anatomical (or geological) structure, more generally a blank space or missing part. The author summarizes the theme of this novel biography of the fictional Mexican American writer Harrison Shepherd with his own personal view: “The most important part of the story is the piece of it you don’t know.” The novel is devoted to discovery and analysis of a lacuna in Shepherd’s character and another in North American history.

Characters come alive

Kingsolver’s understanding of history’s personal costs illuminates aspects of Mexican and American history not widely known today to American readers. Her striking characters include: The Russian exile Lev Trotsky, running a revolution from his bizarre household, with his wife Natalia and his two secretaries Van and Shepherd. The latter also becomes the cook, because his skill in mixing plaster for frescoes applies to blending white flour for tortillas. Trotsky is a guest of artist Diego Rivera and his third wife, Frida Kahlo, at first in an absurdly incommodious house of stark cubes designed by the artist’s friend, architect Juan O’Gorman. Then they move to his father’s more spacious traditional homestead in Chicoyacán, south of Mexico City.  

Eyewitness view of events

The introverted Shepherd narrates the story from a third person point of view with selfless, shy objectivity, wry humor and ironic characterization. He records Frida’s mercurial personality, Rivera’s explosive grumpiness and Trotsky’s warm, generous intentions toward his extended family in exile and beyond to all humanity.

One of history’s personal costs was the murder of Trotsky by Stalin’s agents in 1940. After this tragic ending, Shepherd returns to his native Asheville. This self-effacing bachelor acquires a Thomas Wolfe-like mystique as he settles into a career as a successful novelist of historical fiction. He bases his steamy potboilers on his knowledge of Aztec history. In letters to his friend Frida he is free to use the first person and at last expresses feelings. He notes wistfully the accidents of history which allowed Stalin to outmaneuver first Lenin and then Trotsky, whose vision for a social democracy might have altered the course of world history in the late twentieth century. He employs his former boardinghouse friend, the stately widow Violet Brown, as his secretary and factotum, to type his manuscripts, track his literary progress and handle his business affairs. He writes to Frida that the fatalistic outlook of Mexicans contrasts sharply with the activism of Americans on the home front during World War II. He writes in an ironic tone, measuring history’s personal costs

A year ago all seemed lost, the Axis was unstoppable in Europe or the Pacific. Now some say this war could be won.

If so, then the victory will belong to housewives as well as soldiers, because everyone here is part of the fight. To you the war is useless destruction, a match played out over the wireless, but here it is the organizing principle of our days. If cloth is in short supply, the girls will wear one ruffle per sleeve, no more, and no fuss. If the Axis sank 8 million tons of warships last year, so be it, these ladies will hand over what appears to be 8 million tons of hairpins, let the tresses fall where they may. The neighbor children use rocks to bang all the hinges from gates for the metal drives, or brides turn in their silver, grandfathers their bronze tipped canes. Sacrifice is a sacrament … All as one, with hairpins and paperclips, we vanquish Hirohito and his Mitsubishi warship factory. 

The Lacuna, Harper Perennial/ Modern Classics Edition, P. 282

Another eyewitness view of the home front

Barbara Kingsolver has a gift for measuring history’s personal costs on her complex characters. While I tried to attain these heights, Mom’s inborn talent, honed in Thornton Wilder’s creative writing class at the University of Chicago, saved the day. In her inspired yet often interrupted writing career, my mother Alice Green chronicled women’s key role on the home front during World War II. Before he left for the war, Dad helped her make a wide-ranging pitch to the news syndicates to publish her humorous episodes of the war worker’s and housewife’s wartime plight in a weekly column. She too was undone by wartime scarcity: the lack of newsprint to add her work to the slimmed-down daily papers. I incorporated her several earnest attempts to write her own story and published her work as Radio: One Woman’s Family in War and Pieces. She had finally made it: Ward Greene, Executive Editor of King Features Syndicate, had written her a long rejection letter: “You write extremely well, and what you have to say is a story that should be told. Someday it will be told in a book, and I hope you will be the one to write it.”

I won’t reveal the further twists of Kingsolver’s marvelous novel. She herself said what she was trying to do was develop a plot with as many twists and turns as Dashiell Hammett, yet with the geographic and historic sweep of James A. Michener. In this she succeeds.

But the final word goes to the laconic Violet Brown. While she knows that the most important part of a person is the part you don’t know, the lacuna, she learns another lesson about his hidden character trait, which also applies to the accidents of history: “What you don’t know can’t hurt you, they say. Yet it can. So much hangs upon it.”

Until next time, good words to you,


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