Barbara Kingsolver's recent novel The Lacuna is a fictional biography of a fascinating man, Harrison Shepherd. Several dimensions of Shepherd's life were particularly interesting to me. Shepherd was born in 1916, and the book begins when he was around 8 years old, and continues for about 30 years.
First, we meet him as a boy isolated on a rich man's estate on a Mexican island, where his mother lives with the first of her many lovers. His only friend is Leandro the cook, and Shepherd's education comes from helping this friend in the kitchen. Learning to make pastry allows him to feel a sense of accomplishment. "Cooking in this house is like war," says Leandro. "I am the capitan of bread and you are my sergente mayor. If he throws out your mother you might still have a job, if you can make pan dulce and blandas." The description of the process of making and filling the pastry dough is wonderful. (p. 22)
A few years later, Shepherd is indeed on his own. His dough-making skill obtains him a job mixing plaster -- his fingers knew how to knead a paste to a smooth consistency, which pleased the artist Diego Rivera who was making gesso for murals in Mexico City. Through this introduction, Shepherd becomes a Rivera family servant and helper. He cooks in their kitchen, serves as a private secretary, and has a rather brotherly relationship to Frida Kalho, Rivera's wife.
Shepherd cooks and runs the Rivera's kitchen, and secretly records his memories and experiences. For Lent (which the atheist Riveras celebrate anyway) he makes "lima bean soup, potatoes in green sauce, fried beans." He oversees kitchen maids while the Riveras do politics, thinking that the maids dream perhaps "of a Syndicate of Avocado Mashers." Preparing dinner for politicians is one of Shepherd's memories. Frida demands "chicken escabeche, pork and nopales in pipian sauce, mole poblano. Sweet potatoes mashed with pineapple. Tomato and water cress salad. The pork-rib and tomato stew she calls 'the tablecloth stainer.' At last report she also wants shrimps and marinated pigs' feet. The senora might have to paint portraits of the guests as they come in, and sell them on the way out, to pay the butcher after this fiesta." (p. 130-140)
The historical novel now follows the history of Diego and Frida Rivera. Active in the Mexican Communist party, they become the hosts and protectors of Leon Trotsky who has fled Russia and is being pursued by Stalin's goons. Shepherd becomes the secretary and general aide to Trotsky and his wife, and he nearly witnesses his boss's assassination. Kinglsolver brings the lives of the Riveras and the Trotskys into sharp focus, describing the betrayals and quarrels of the Communist leaders -- another dimension that I much liked.
After Trotsky's death, Shepherd decides to return from Mexico to his other native land: the USA. He settles in Asheville, North Carolina, and becomes a best-selling author, fulfilling his lifelong wish to write about the conquest of Mexico. His books are published at the end of World War II. I enjoyed the descriptions of his life in small-town America during the war, but the end of the story takes a completely different turn. His Communist background and connections attract the attention of the House UnAmerican Activites Committee and the FBI.
Shepherd is hounded and persecuted, the words of his books are taken out of context (in fact out of the mouths of totally fictional Indian characters) and used to prove that he is a demon. Kingsolver makes vivid an era of American history that it's painful to imagine. She doesn't belabor the parallels to certain elements of current politics, but they are also inescapable.
It's a thoroughly good read, and the many historic and emotional settings really held my interest through the whole long book, which I read rather quickly.