This book didn't get great reviews, but I've liked every one of Kingsolver's books since I started reading them with The Poisonwood Bible. I haven't read her earlier works. And I liked this one a lot, though not unreservedly.
This one is the story of a lonely boy who grows up to be a lonely man. He is imaginative and kind and he becomes an historical novelist, picking up on the subjects that fascinated him as a child. He ends up in Ashville, North Carolina, more or less by accident, and he is different from the average citizen of that or really any American city and he's persecuted for being different.
Harrison Shepherd is his name. He was born of a Mexican mother and an American father working for the US government in Washington. He was self educated because after his mother took him back to Mexico when he was 12, he never went to school—unless you count two cheap but totally inappropriate schools in Mexico City and in Washington. (We really know nothing of his life before he was 12—Kingsolver doesn’t characterize his life before that and there’s no retrospective on his early childhood. His father as a personality is virtually unknown, even though he figures briefly in the novel.)
The novel opens in 1929 with the diary of the young boy living in isolation on Isla Pixol with his mother, Salomé, and, some of the time, her married lover, a Mexican businessman always negotiating with American oil companies. He doesn’t go to school and for awhile the only thing he has to read is an Agatha Christie novel he reads over and over. He swims and with the village children’s searches for “the lacuna” the occasional cave in the rocks along the shore where one can get trapped by an incoming tide. One can survive by waiting out the tides, but only Shepherd has the nerve to do it. His only friend on the island is a cook who teaches him how to make the dough for “pan dulce” a skill that gets him a job when he and his mother leave the island and hit harder times in Mexico City. The job is mixing the plaster for a famous painter and eventually the boy prepares plaster, cooks and acts as secretary in the house of Diego Riveria and Frida Kahlo.
It is there he meets Lev Davidovitch Trotsky, whom he admires and loves, and acts as his secretary and general factotum until the house is attacked and Trotsky killed with an icepick wielded by an agent of Stalin’s. The Mexican police arrest everyone in the house, at least temporarily, and confiscate everything, including all the boy’s journals.
It is 1940. The boy, in his early twenties, has nothing of his own and with Diego and Frida leaving, he decides to go back to the US and find his father. Frida commissions him officially to deliver crated paintings to a gallery in NY. She also specifies one crate which is a gift to him—a gift which he doesn't open for two years and which turns out to be the push he needs to get him started on his vocation.
At this point the novel changes directions drastically and one Violet Brown takes over the narration. She is a marvelous creation. A woman in her late 30ies, Violet comes from what we now call Appalachia and speaks an antique sort of English that sets her apart from the rest of the people in Ashville. She’s a widow whose husband died in a flood after less than a year of marriage, a woman who lives in a boarding house and does secretarial/bookkeeping work for the city of Ashville, one of those incredibly efficient woman who seem to most to have “no life”. But Mrs. Brown had left her restrictive life in the hills with dreams of education and travel and finding a broader world. A woman open to new possibilities, she stands in stark contrast to Harrison Shepherd’s fun-loving but selfish and irresponsible mother. When he ends up in Ashville writing historical novels about ancient Mexico, Violet Brown comes to work as his secretary.
After Mexico, the narrative is mostly Violet’s, with her quiet efficiency, open- yet tough-mindedness, and interest in art and in the world beyond Ashville. And her quaint and charming method of talking. It’s clear that Harrison Shepherd is dead and that she’s left this manuscript to be published after her death—and that the narrative includes some diaries written by Shepherd. That she loved him is clear. It’s also clear that she feels a need to “set the record straight” though, at first, about what is not at all clear.
The weakest part of the novel, I think, is actually the subject—how the life and work of a gentle, thoughtful, generous and open-minded man is turned into the worst kind of menace and degradation by his association with “known Communists” in his youth. Kingsolver also makes Shepherd homosexual—basically to provide a “psychological” excuse for his not having been drafted in the war—and also to cause him to isolate himself even more—and make him even more suspicious to the FBI investigators for the House Un-American Activities Committee. The reviews of his books are taken out of context. Statements made by characters in his books are attributed to Shepherd talking about the leaders of the US. The fact that Trotsky was killed by Stalin having spent the last part of his life trying to rescue Russia from what Stalin had done to Communism is not something the FBI understood so Shepherd’s respect and sadness at Trotsky's death is seen as proof that he advocates the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. Even though Shepherd is completely apolitical, never even having exercised his right to vote.
Kingsolver makes the evidence against Shepherd completely absurd: because a reviewer said his books were so popular they were probably being read in China, he’s accused to consoreting with the Chinese Communists. Not that absurdities like those dreamed up against Shepherd didn’t occur. Not that innocent and productive citizens were not ruined by the Communist scares of the late 40ies and early 50ies. Imprisoned and driven to suicide. But for the reader, the building up of phony evidence gets boring and predictable.
What’s not predictable and therefore thoroughly enjoyable is the ending.