“From a hundred paces, Salome could see the dirt under these girls’ fingernails, but not their wings,” (12). This. breaks. my. heart.
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver gave me so much to think about that I’ve had a really hard time choosing how exactly to respond. Its creative structure of journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings and archivist’s notes tells the life story of Harrison Shepherd, half Mexican, half American, who begins the story as a a lonely yet adventurous boy on an island in Mexico. His path crosses with the lives of some of history’s most interesting character’s: Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky. He goes on to move to North Carolina and lead a very quiet life as a writer. There aren’t enough pages to go into all that the story touches on: The 1932 Bonus March in Washington, DC, the culture of the Red Scare, the relationship between art and politics…so for now I will zoom in on what I thought was one of the most relevant themes in the book, the title itself.
The word lacuna has multiple meanings, but I want to focus on one: it means “the missing piece” and in the story refers to the fact that “…you can’t really know the person standing before you, because always there is some missing piece…That is the heart of the story,” (325).
This is the heart wrenching complexity of human relations: we are quick to judge without knowing someone’s story and yet, once we do hear it, there is typically some kind of inner backlash:
I wish I would have known that.
That completely changes the way I thought of that person.
Oh, it all makes sense.
Now I’m the ass.
I like to settle myself into the optimist’s camp (that I don’t think is mutually exclusive with naivete), believing that if we looked at people differently, the world would change. It pains me that even as I type this it seems like a banal idea. But really, if we looked for, or even lived under the assumption that everyone has a complex story, layered with wrongs given and wrongs received, fragile hearts despite iron exterior, I think we’d all be a little less angry. A little less annoyed. A little more forgiving. A little more apt to see the beautiful?
Kingsolver’s treatment of this concept in the book is much more deep and complex than I could ever begin to explore in a blog post, but it all underlines what I love about literature: that you get to know the inner lives and motivations of characters and have a bit of a window into humanity. Kingsolver said in a recent interview: “Literature will always be political: It cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view.”