by Barbara Kingsolver
In her books, author Barbara Kingsolver writes movingly and knowingly about the intersection of the man-made and natural worlds. Her latest novel, Flight Behavior, illustrates the problems that occur when nature and human systems don’t so much come together as collide, with consequences that serve as both a warning and a call to arms.
The premise of Flight Behavior is straightforward and although it’s a work of fiction, it feels true. Monarch butterflies that have long nested in Mexico have made their way north to the Appalachian Mountain region. The sight of hundreds of thousands of flame-colored butterflies colonizing the hills is seen as a miracle by the residents of Feathertown, an insular and marginalized Tennessee community barely getting by. Soon visitors pour in, suggesting a reprieve from both grinding poverty and the tedium of daily life. A miracle indeed, except to the scientists who have come to chronicle the butterflies’ altered migratory patterns. They know this beauty is of the wrong time and place, suggesting not a heaven-sent gift, but a potentially catastrophic manmade future.
At the center of the monarch phenomenon is a young woman with the unusual name of Dellarobia Turnbow. Pregnant at just seventeen, she has married Cub, whose easygoing accommodation with his small life drives her to despair. Dellarobia, saddled with two children and burdened with her wild thoughts, sets out one day to ruin her life, or so she assumes. On her way to an adulterous liaison, she discovers the monarch colony—a veritable netting of orange and black insects so dense she first imagines the trees to be on fire. Her discovery sends her back down the mountain and makes her something of a minor celebrity. Soon after, she is visited by Doctor Ovid Byron, with several graduate students in tow. He rents space in the Turnbows’ back yard, sets up a makeshift research facility in a camper and hires Dellarobia to assist in recording the group’s findings.
Ovid is unlike anyone the Turnbows, or for that matter, the town, have encountered: foreign-born (St. Thomas), well-traveled, highly educated, and joyous about science. He’s also constrained by the responsibilities of his research. His job is to dispassionately collect and analyze data; yet he can scarcely contain his fear over what lies behind the monarchs’ mysterious appearance.
Flight Behavior is enriched by Kingsolver’s understanding of both the science and the people involved. She details her characters’ quirks and peccadilloes with equal parts affection and amusement, but she never condescends. The residents of fictitious Feathertown are far more complex than superficial impressions might indicate. Their tastes and loyalties are often lampooned by the so-called educated class, as Dellarobia resentfully notes. Their reluctance to fully embrace climate change has as much to do with the restrictions of their hard-scrabbles as with their church-instilled beliefs. Their routine struggles don’t give them much room to contemplate yet one more thing over which they have no control.
In one brilliantly realized scene, a do-gooder from California arrives in town hoping to show the locals how to minimize their carbon footprint. Dellarobia chews on his suggestions and spits them back out, point by clueless point. Buy less gas? We mostly stay put ‘cause it’s too expensive. Eat less meat? Meat’s a luxury we can’t keep on the table. Turn off the computer? Most of us can’t afford one, nor the power to keep it running.
Flight Behavior strengthened my conviction that climate change is very real and terribly serious. But its real accomplishment is in dissecting both the truths that keep us grounded and the beliefs that keep us from taking wing.