Harper Perennial, 2009
The poetic beginnings of the first pages have a patience of story that isn’t common in new fiction, but the name Barbara Kingsolver allows time for a tale. Might as well sit back and relax because the story of a young half-American and half-Mexican boy moved to Mexico by his colorful, grasping mother to be with her new lover when he is eight, has a measured pace. Obviously written by a master, the book begins with the story of the boy, Harrison Shepherd, from the time he moves to a small Caribbean side Mexican island and follows him to the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. From there it weaves in and out of the historic, true story of hiding Leon Trotsky and his entourage until Trotsky’s assassination in 1940. And there’ still more when we follow Shepherd to Ashville, North Carolina.
Harrison is a child of depth and perception who shelters, yet discounts his inner life while retaining an honesty and integrity with others. The son of a woman who makes her way through the charity of men, he learns to make his way by being useful and willing to find a place in the fabric of other peoples’ lives. First he learns mixing dough for baking, which conveniently translates to becoming a plaster mixer for Rivera, before he becomes a secretary for Trotsky, and eventually a friend to Frida.
There is subtle explanation of history, lovely phrases of description, melodic sentences, interesting personalities and a deft unveiling of Mexican life and politics. So a reader travels on, immersed in Kingsolver’s mastery.
Harrison continues to be the sensitive, increasingly misanthropic eyes to history, but there comes a time a few years after Trotsky’s death that Kingsolver seemed to drop the facade of story and poetry for a political message. I cared about Harrison, his later career, his endearing stenographer Mrs. Violet Brown, but with story fading to the background to be replaced with newspaper headlines of the time with the purpose of educating me, well, I got bored. I’m sorry. I know I should be flogged with a thesaurus, or better yet, a ream of paper from the Special Subcommittee of the Committee of Un-American Activities Public Hearing, Tuesday, March 7, 1950. Kingsolver’s point is well-taken with the parallels of the early 50’s and now, but had it been written with the book’s earlier energy and editing, I would have breezed instead of respectfully plodded through to the end.