Saturday, June 21, 2014

Flight Behavior

by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper Perennial     2012
433 pages     Fiction

Dellarobia Turnbow is the young mother of two preschool children living in a small house on the family farm in Appalachia. "...being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself." As Flight Behavior opens, she is on the way up the mountain to a small cabin to meet a man with whom she has been having a flirtation. She is on the cusp of throwing her life and marriage away when she has a Moses-like burning bush experience. Thoroughly freaked-out by the message she believes has come from God, she turns around and goes back down to her mundane life filled with guilt and promises to do better. 

She later discovers that her burning bush is in actuality a gathering of millions of monarch butterflies, and the discovery changes her life. The discovery of the monarch butterflies creates a media and scientific frenzy. The monarchs are not supposed to be there, but their winter habitat in Mexico has been destroyed. A biologist named Ovid Byron arrives from New Mexico to study the monarchs, and he brings along with him equipment, student assistants, and later, a job for Dellarobia.

Flight Behavior explores the relationships between Dellarobia  and her family, friends, and community. The book, however, is only in part about Dellarobia (I just love saying that name!). It is in large part an exploration of the relationship between the monarch butterflies up there on the mountain and the effects of global warming that brought them there in the first place. Kingsolver is not subtle in her feelings about global warming, nor is she subtle in the way she expresses those feelings. In some ways, this is a polemic about global warming in the guise of a novel. But, the book is redeemed by a cast of characters that is incredibly appealing. You learn a lot of science in amidst the family drama, and believe me there is plenty of drama. These are complex, fully developed characters for the most part, although some of the minor characters are caricatures. 

Kingsolver chooses to write novels that are not just a good read, but she wants to make a point regarding social justice. In an interview with Diane Rehm, she says: "That was my plan because novelists really aren't writing about climate change. Well, it's pretty rare for novelists to write about science, in general, so because I was trained as a scientist, I really like to write about science and about the methods of science. And part of the difficulty of this conversation, non-conversation, that as a nation we're having or not having about climate change, is that it's hard for people even always to understand the language of science." So, she has a message about global warming for the non-scientist, using Dellarobia as the foil. Dellarobia is a sponge for knowledge, and over the course of this scientific journey, Kingsolver dispenses her scientific knowledge, and Dellarobia, as well as her son, Preston, soak it up. In the end, it is the science of the monarch butterflies and global warming that causes Dellarobia to make major changes in her life.

Kingsolver's social justice point of view is obvious in two definitive scenes: the first involving an environmentalist who sets up shop on the mountain to tell the locals about how to behave responsibly about the environment. One of his solutions is to fly less, but of course none of the people in Dellarobia's family have ever been on a plane. The other scene is the shopping trip Dellarobia and her husband take to the dollar store to buy Christmas gifts for their children, and all they can afford is cheap, foreign made junk, and she despairs the idea that another generation of children are bound by poverty. 

One of the things that Kingsolver really understands is the relationship of religion to the lives of Appalachian people. Chapter 3 is a description of a southern church that I found to be worth the price of the book. Dellarobia was "what Hester (her mother-in-law) called a 911 Christian; in the event of an emergency, call the Lord." She goes to church because it is conventional; in her world view, everything is open to question, but that is not the style of the southern church. She has been kicked out of the Wednesday evening Bible study because she asked too many questions and made too many unorthodox observations.

The comment made by Ovid, the biologist, is Kingsolver's message. When he is describing to Dellarobia the diminishing coral reefs and dying insects, he laments: "What was the use of saving a world that has no soul left in it." 

My book club had a lively discussion about the book, probably evenly divided between those who loved it and those who thought it was only marginally successful. Frankly, I am in the marginally successful camp. I found the science part of the novel cumbersome and didactic. The ending, no matter how symbolic and breathtaking, was a bit cheesy. (Dare I say that about such a famous novelist.) 
On the plus side, Kingsolver is a compelling writer, and I found myself underlining some marvelous statements on nearly every page. She understands human nature extremely well, which makes Flight Behavior worth reading, even if it has less than glorious moments.

Kingsolver is committed to social justice, and her books reflect her views. Apparently, she has even established an award called the PEN/Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. 

Barbara Kingsolver's website:


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