The Lacuna

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One of Barbara Kingsolver’s repeated themes in The Lacuna is that the most interesting part of a story is the part that is not told. A lacuna is a missing or hidden part, and the novel hints at many of them. On the surface, the book tells the life story of Harrison William Shepherd. It begins when he is a child in the 1920’s. His Mexican mother, Salomé, has taken him to her home country to live with her lover after leaving his father, a U.S. government employee. They move frequently as Salomé drifts from lover to lover. Harrison’s schooling is so sporadic that by his teenage years he qualifies only for a school for the mentally deficient. When that school proves unsuitable, he goes to Washington, D.C., where his father enrolls him in a military boarding school.

After being expelled for homosexual behavior, Harrison returns to Mexico. He works for the artist Diego Rivera mixing plaster. Later, he becomes a cook and secretary for Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky takes refuge with the artists. After Trotsky is shot, Kahlo seeks to protect Harrison by having him deliver art to the United States to get him out of the country. Harrison settles in Asheville, North Carolina, where he writes best-selling novels about ancient Mexico. He hires a stenographer, Violet Brown, to help with typing and correspondence.

Harrison is investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which seeks to stop the spread of communism in the United States. He and Violet travel to Mexico, where Harrison fakes his death. Violet compiles his journals and other materials into a book manuscript and has it locked away to be considered for publication in fifty years.

That is the plot of The Lacuna, but, like any good novel, the book goes far beyond its plotline. In this case, the text’s lacunae are important parts of the story. As a child living on Isla Pixol in Mexico, Harrison discovers the novel’s first lacuna: He learns that the cliffs along the ocean contain caves that are underwater at high tide. He learns to hold his breath long enough to swim into one of these caves. There, he finds that it is a tunnel leading into a pond where the Aztecs left gifts for the gods and made human sacrifices.

Another lacuna occurs at the end of the novel, when readers are led to believe that Harrison has drowned. Violet learns the truth several years later, when she receives a drawing from Frida Kahlo’s estate with a cryptic message on it. Readers learn that he is alive from her account of that gift. Another missing piece of the story is the journal that tells why Harrison was expelled from school. Occasional comments in his later journals make it clear that he was caught engaging in homosexual activity with another student, but few of the details are revealed.

The novel is formatted as a compilation of various types of written documents, creating an exploration of how readers acquire information and misinformation. In fact, a major theme of the work is how and why misunderstandings are created. Its first words introduce this theme by describing the “howlers” Harrison hears every morning as a child on Isla Pixol in Mexico. He and his mother think these howlers are demons who eat human flesh. It turns out that they are only monkeys. The novel includes the beginning of Harrison’s memoir, his journals, newspaper articles, letters, notes from Violet about the materials included in her manuscript, and the transcript of a hearing. By juxtaposing...

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these texts, readers construct a narrative and discover the lacunae within it.

The beginning of Harrison’s memoir is a rewritten version of his first childhood journal, presented from an adult perspective. His other journals remain in the format of dated entries. While much of the novel derives from Harrison’s journals, though, Violet is in a large way the story’s creator, since she has compiled them for a manuscript. The extent to which she edited Harrison’s writing is not clear. Harrison thought that Violet burned the journals to destroy potentially damaging evidence when he was being investigated by Congress. In fact, she burned only one, the one he kept while he was a teenager at the Potomac Academy. She explains in her notes that she burned that one because it contained something Harrison did not want others to read. She admits that he wanted the other journals destroyed also but does not clarify why she kept all but one.

While Violet might have manipulated the material in Harrison’s journals, Harrison himself also might have done so, aware of the possibility that someone would read the journals someday. He continued to make journal entries even after he thought his earlier journals had been burned. By this time, he knew that government agents might read anything he wrote. Earlier, Rivera and Kahlo were afraid that Harrison’s journals would create trouble if the police or others read his account of Trotsky’s stay at their home. Kahlo asked Harrison to use his journal to create an objective record of the household’s events, and he submitted the entries to her each week for her review. It is clear that during this time Harrison wrote journal entries thinking of Kahlo as an audience.

While journals are typically thought of as personal records of truth, newspapers contain public statements of fact. The Lacuna includes a number of newspaper articles. Some are actual articles reprinted from publications including The New York Times. Others are fictional. The actual articles document the political biases behind reporting of the leftist movement in 1930’s Mexico and behind the investigations into “un-American” activities in the United States in the 1940’s.

The last excerpt from The New York Times, dated September 26, 1948, reports on a claim that President Harry S. Truman had communist ties. This article demonstrates both the extent to which accusations of communism were politically motivated and the degree to which politicians, reporters, and others quickly forgot their own recent history during the Red Scare. The article reports that Truman had been endorsed for vice president by a socialist newspaper a few years earlier. It does not note that ties to socialist and communist groups were common among U.S. politicians, intellectuals, and others throughout the 1930’s and early 1940’s. In fact, the endorsement had come during World War II, at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were military allies.

The novel’s fictional newspaper stories contain numerous inaccuracies. For example, Harrison’s obituary in the local newspaper says that he was discharged from his job with the Department of State for treason, fraud, and misrepresentation of qualifications. In fact, at the time of his supposed death, Harrison had been a full-time novelist since his war-related government service concluded with the end of World War II. Several articles about his investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities attribute a quote to him that was actually spoken by a character in one of his novels. Moreover, although his novels were set in ancient Mexico, reporters labeled them as commentary on the U.S. political situation of the time.

The novel also incorporates reviews of Harrison’s books that question the objectivity of book reviews. Before he is accused of being a communist, he is one of the most popular writers in the country. His reviews are glowingly positive. Once the congressional investigation begins, however, reviewers denounce his books and comment on the ways they express a communist viewpoint. Harrison always refuses to have his photograph published on his book jackets. Before the investigation, reviewers describe him as attractive and eligible. Later, one describes him as too ugly to have his photograph printed.

The fan letters included in the novel take a similar turn. Before the investigation, Harrison receives bags of enthusiastic fan mail and attracts particular interest from female fans. After the investigation becomes public, the letters change to hate mail and threats.

Among all the documents included in the novel, a transcript of a hearing before a subcommittee of the Committee on Un-American Activities is the one that seems most reliably to report on an event. The transcript provides no evidence that Harrison was active in or promoted communist activity. However, one of the examiners, after insisting that Harrison provide only yes or no answers, words his questions in ways that, if the questions are taken out of context, appear damning.

In the simplest terms, in Kingsolver’s novel what appears to be true is not the whole story. Although Harrison worked for Rivera and Trotsky, he was not engaged in revolutionary activity. He served as a cook and secretary.

Brown claims that she prepared the manuscript that has become the novel because she wanted readers to understand who Harrison Shepherd was and what happened to him. Throughout the novel, though, other characters see him through their own perspectives, even naming him to suit their purposes. His full name is Harrison William Shepherd, and his mother calls him Will. Later, when she sends him to the United States for school, his father calls him Harrison. When he works as a cook in Kahlo’s home, Kahlo cannot pronounce “Harrison,” so she nicknames him Insólito, or Sóli for short. He signs letters to Kahlo and Rivera with the names H. W. Shepherd, H. Shepherd, Insólito, and Sóli.

Part of the complication to Harrison’s identity is his mixed Mexican and American parentage and upbringing. Having lived in both countries, Harrison never feels completely at home in either. He spends his childhood in Mexico reading adventure novels and learning survival skills from the servants. As an adult in North Carolina, he rarely leaves home, preferring for Brown to run his errands for him.

In spite of the novel’s insistence on the complexities of communicating with and understanding other people, deep friendship is an important theme of the work. Harrison is a successful writer largely because of the support and encouragement of Kahlo and Brown. Kahlo urges him to write. She steals a copy of an ancient artifact from Rivera and sends it to him. Harrison bases one of his novels on the story its pictures tell. Brown is loyal to her employer even after he is investigated for communist activity.

On its publication, The Lacuna met a mixed critical reception. Some reviewers judged The Lacuna to be Kingsolver’s finest novel to date. They praised the novel’s scope and commented that the plot is engaging throughout. Others said that the second half, recording the time after Shepherd moves to North Carolina and becomes a novelist, is weaker than the first half. The main complaints about the second half were that Shepherd’s character goes flat and that the political statement about U.S. politics in the 1950’s takes priority over plot and character development. Most reviewers responded enthusiastically to the part of the novel that records Shepherd’s time living in the Rivera-Kahlo household in 1930’s Mexico.


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Booklist 106, no. 2 (September 15, 2009): 5.

The Bookseller, no. 5407 (November 6, 2009): 55.

The Christian Science Monitor, October 31, 2009, p. Books-25.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 17 (September 1, 2009): 909-910.

Library Journal 134, no. 17 (October 15, 2009): 67.

The New York Times Book Review, November 8, 2009, p. 9.

The New Yorker 85, no. 38 (November 23, 2009): 113.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 33 (August 17, 2009): 1.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009, p. 23.