History geeks everywhere lost an icon recently. Howard Zinn, best known for his radical work A People’s History of the United States , left behind an illustrious life at the age of 87. History is written by the winners, they say, and the works of powerful men have been recorded since antiquity. But we have Zinn largely to thank for creating a place in historical scholarship for the narratives of everyday citizens, for those who have been largely ignored and often oppressed. Zinn argued that it is the reader’s responsibility to consider all sides of the story and then draw his/her own conclusions.
Zinn’s passing dovetailed, coincidentally, with my recent reading of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna . Her latest novel is a warning about the danger of interpreting history strictly from the winner’s circle. (A “lacuna” is a historian’s term meaning the hole or missing part of a story.) Harrison Shepherd drifts through his childhood until he sets anchor as a cook in the household of Mexican artists and revolutionaries Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. They were Communists; but then, Shepherd testifies later in life, everyone in Mexico was a Communist at that time. It was just another political party. And, after all, Stalin and his Communist regime were our allies in World War Two. Meanwhile, Stalin’s men are after his exiled rival, Lev Trotsky, who has found asylum in the Kahlo household. Through his friendships with Trotsky and Kahlo, Shepherd learns about the fickle nature of the media, who are more interested in selling a sensational story than in representing both sides fairly.
Postwar, Shepherd moves Stateside, and before long his incidental Communist ties come back to haunt him. Stalin is out and McCarthyism is in. McCarthy and co. embark on a fear-fueled campaign to ferret out any possible Communist sympathizers. Shepherd has made a name penning bestselling historical novels with subtle political undertones. A Salinger-esque recluse, he refuses to give interviews or even deny bogus rumors, believing that “God speaks for the silent man.” His devoted secretary, Violet Brown, does not trust the press or the public to listen to God, and tragically her concerns are manifested in a sudden intense interest in Mr. Shepherd from the House Un-American Activities Commission.
This book, laid out like a series of diaries and letters, felt a little herky-jerky to me. The Mexico chapters are a treat, lovingly evoking a vivid, romantic landscape. Unfortunately, the action in Asheville is little more than a loooong buildup to Shepherd’s trial, which you can see coming from a hundred miles away.
I do love Ms. Kingsolver and her plucky activist bent, but she often beats you over the head with her intended message. Perhaps she could tighten her stories a bit if she assumed a little more sophistication on the readers’ part. Overall, I would recommend The Lacuna , if only to savor Kingsolver’s magnificent writing and maybe get a little history lesson on the side.