Skip to main content

A different view of 20th century history

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | December 22, 2009

Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel The Lacuna manages to do something that we could hope all historical fiction might accomplish: it moved me to go back to actual histories of the events and characters described to get a sense of how much of the historical storyline was reliable.

For anyone who has read previous books by Kingsolver, this latest work will not entirely satisfy; but it absolutely will fascinate with its sideways view of critical events of the mid-twentieth century that are likely not part of most readers’ consciousness.

The sense of immersion in the Mexico City of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo was something that I found particularly engaging, but it wasn’t that part of the plot that pushed me to fact-checking. Nor was it the less-familiar intersection of the Rivera-Kahlo household with the end of the life of Trotsky.

Rather, it was the vivid depiction of the 1932 Bonus March in Washington, DC, during which General Douglas MacArthur deliberately continued an attack on unarmed, unemployed War War I veterans and their families, who were camped in DC to call attention to the failure of the US to provide promised post-war payments. (One quick place to read about these events is a precis of an American Experience webpage). It was a reminder to me that the main images offered us about the Great Depression often leave out the heart-breaking effects of the economic crash on everyday people.

I had a similar reaction to the sections dealing with the House Unamerican Activities Committee’s campaign against supposed communists after World War II. Kingsolver’s ability to make large-scale events more tangible by providing us images of the local-level impacts inspired me to wonder about a period of modern US history that I normally don’t think much about.