Monday, February 07, 2011

A Cautionary Tale

I recently finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel The Lacuna. While I love everything of Kingsolver that I have read, I kept reserving judgment on this work. It is a slow growing work—moving along with the life of Harrison Shepherd, son of estranged parents—his father a U.S. minor bureaucrat functionary working in Washington, D.C., and a Mexican mother with a wanderlust, and sometimes just a plain lust. Harrison grows up in Mexico, and early on encounters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (yes, those famous artists). Their lives entwine with Trotsky, exiled in Mexico, so young Harrison encounters Trotsky as well.

He leaves Mexico twice—first as a young boy who is sent off to live with his father for a time, and then later as an adult when he eventually settles in Asheville, NC. Drawing on his childhood, he begins to write novels of the fallen Aztec empire, reworking stories he heard in his childhood. These novels are wildly successful, and provide a livable income for him. But, he harbors a personal secret. For me, the major frustration in reading the novel is that the secret is only touched on, and never explored in depth.

All his life, he has kept diaries. These diaries provide the literary conceit which moves the story along. As a successful author, he employs a personal secretary who eventually becomes the recipient of the diaries, and it is her telling in the second half of the novel that moves the story along. By now, the time frame of the novel is the mid-1950s. The height of the House Committee on Unamerican Activities and the Senate McCarthy hearings. Harrison’s prior contact with “Communists” comes to light. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale.

I could not help but think of current events. There is a kind of drumbeat in this country to have only one kind of thinking. Maybe that is too dire a pronouncement, but to hear some of the commentaries that air on television, the acceptance for diverging points of view is minimal. You don’t think as I do—the fault and blame is yours. MY WAY IS THE ONLY RIGHT WAY.

Things are far worse in places where religious extremism reigns. I read stories of the Taliban in Afghanistan or Pakistan stoning people to death. There have been two recent such instances. As if the actual event weren’t bad enough, the stonings were videotaped. Maybe the video bears witness to the practice—and needs to be shared.

Maybe there is something built in to our human nature that just wants to point the finger and say—YOU, you are the transgressor. You must die for not thinking, or acting as I do. Or you must be banished. Or silenced. Somehow you must be removed from having any influence on the world in which I live.

I recall that stunning story by Shirley Jackson “
The Lottery.” If you've never read this story, you should--though prepare to be horrified. It too is a cautionary tale. There are difference between the events portrayed in The Lacuna, and in Jackson's "The Lottery." But the driving motivation behind them is the same--it is oh so tempting to find someone to blame--to point the finger--to cast a lottery and pick someone to stone, because that process gives us the illusion of safety.

Can it happen here again? Would we go through the kind of horror that reach epitome in the McCarthy hearings? I fervently hope not. But it takes vigilance on all our parts. We need to remember that only as we are tolerant, only as we live and let live, only as we acknowledge that the path each of us has chosen is NOT necessarily the path others must walk--then with that level of awareness and acknowledgement, we might be able to escape the cycle of history.

Read The Lacuna, by all means. Enjoy its peek into an era. But also think of it as a cautionary tale.


Anvilcloud said...

As you no doubt recall, I gave up on this one. For me, Kingsolver's voice is found in ordinary, resourceful, female characters, and Lacuna wasn't resonating with me.

Jayne said...

And, these actions are all based in fear sadly.

Murr Brewster said...

I've been brushing up on history for some fiction I'm working on, and what keeps striking me is that everything we worry about now has happened before, and not all that long ago. Before McCarthy, the red scare after WWI. And before that. And the economic dislocations and scapegoating, every twenty years or so. The only thing I've figured out is we wipe our memories clean as a society every generation, and do it all over again.

KGMom said...

AC--I agree that The Lacuna didn't "resonate" as you say. That's why I found it a slow growing work. But I did enjoy the Diego Rivera/ Frida Kahlo thread running through it. And the oblique occasional references to Harrison's sexuality. I thought more was going to be made of that, but maybe like the 1950s were silent, so was his sexuality. But the anti-Communism theme was very compelling. First, it had NO right to ruin his life. But we know historically it ruined MANY lives, and in such whimsical spiteful ways. Then, finally the ending of the novel absolutely hit it out of the park, as baseball fans would say.
Maybe you will return to the novel, and have at it. But of course I never urge someone to keep reading something that isn't working for them.

KGMom said...

you both touch on the same thing. The degree to which the kind of insanity we engaged in--during McCarthy era and during the Red Scare of the 20s--is driven by fear. And how it is so cyclical. That's why I kept thinking of the novel as a cautionary tale. Don't think it can't happen again, people. Because it can.
So true, that we cannot remember, or maybe even wipe out memory, and so are condemned to repeat. As George Santayana reminds us: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Ginnie said...

The reaction to this novel by Ms. Kingsolver is very interesting. I had a hard time getting any interest going and then could not put it down. I agree that it is almost to close to home right now and it brought up the McCathy era for me...a scary time and one that we may be going toward if we are not careful.

Anonymous said...

I love Kingsolver's books. I think my favorite is High Tide in Tucson, her book of essays.

It makes me very uneasy to see those who want to put their brand of religion in government and decide who is a REAL Christian, who carry arms and want to make laws about women's bodies, who aren't interested in improving schools, roads, etc., have no thought of the environment other than to belittle those who do... and yet they howl about extremists in other countries.

troutbirder said...

Well done Donna. If only more would take this cautionary to heart. I tend to think to think this rigid and righteous political thinking is the modern high tech influenced version of ethnocentrism.

Climenheise said...

Good post. My only addition is to note your sentence: "Things are far worse in places where religious extremism reigns." I note that the problem is extremism, not religion. Here in Canada the CAUT is trying to force faith-based universities (such as Canadian Mennonite University) to give up their faith foundation in the name of academic freedom. (How forcing someone to adopt your own viewpoint promotes academic freedom is a puzzle I can't solve.) The problem is the insistence that "you must think as I do". Extremism allied with intolerance is the basic problem, equally opprobrious when used by religious or secular, Christian or atheist or Muslim.

Your note on the appeal to fear is also right on. Too too characteristic of our own time, in the media and in many personal relationships.