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November 25, 2012

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

In her latest novel Flight Behaviour, as ever, Barbara Kingsolver has written a novel about ecology. “Ecology is the study of biological communities. How populations interact,” so explains lepidopterologist Ovid Byron. The populations Kingsolver considers in Flight Behaviour are the Turnbrows, a farming family from Appalachia fallen on hard times, and their feisty daughter-in-law Dellarobia who, after ten years, is still an outsider in their midst. When Dellarobia discovers that an enormous population of monarch butterflies have settled in the forest on her family’s mountain, the family encounters other populations previously unimaginable–a team of scientists, environmentalists, frenzied journalists. And finally, on a biological level, Kingsolver is writing about the displaced monarch population and whatever factors in a climate gone awry have led them off their usual migratory route.

Though much more accessible and concerned with the lives of ordinary people (as opposed to Frieda Kahlo and Trotsky), Flight Behaviour is a continuation of the ideas Kingsolver dealt with in The Lacuna, a brilliant book which won the Orange Prize in 2010. She is concerned with an America-divided, a nation stuck on its false binaries, and eroding itself with creeping anti-intellectualism. Flight Behaviour is set in the present day, and its underlying premise is climate change.

Its impact seems obvious–crops are lost to rainy summers, winter never really arrives. And yet to the Turnbrows, “climate change” is an idea, a debate. At least this is what the men on the radio tell them. The crazy weather is another way in which Dellarobia Turnbrow has no control over her life, a life in which there is never enough money, enough work, and she and her husband have never managed to escape from under the thumb of her over-bearing mother-in-law Hester. One day, however, as the book begins, Dellarobia decides to take at least one part of her life into her own hands, and set in motion a series of events to free her from everything. She’s heading up the mountain toward her own escape route, a liaison with a man who is not her husband.

She never gets there–she sees the butterflies instead, and without her glasses, the red looks like the world on fire. Convinced she’s seen a sign, she returns back to the place where she belongs, unaware that the sign she’s seen is an indicator of something with nothing to do with her and family at all, but which also to do with everything.

Ovid Byron, the butterfly scientist, shows up amidst the journalists, hippie kids and sight-seers with an interest in the phenomenon on the Turnbrow mountain. He sets up camp out behind Dellarobia’s house, and she’s taken on by his team as a assistant. The team, feels Dellarobia, is from another world, with their expensive gear, their years of learning, understanding of the wider world, experiences of travel. Dellarobia has a reputation as “the smart one” but was never able to make much of it after getting pregnant at the end of high school, and shotgunning it into early marriage. And suddenly with her new job (and its income), the world becomes open to her in a way it hasn’t been in years. Unfortunately, this opening is occurring as the world is in peril–what has provoked the butterflies to change their patterns? Will the population make it through the Appalachian winter, so different from the Mexican climate they’re accustomed to. And will they be able to convince Dellarobia’s father-in-law to change his mind about clear-cutting the entire mountain, a decision he’d made to get the family through one payment of a massive debt?

Complicating binaries is what Barbara Kingsolver does, and so this is not just a story about how a group of scientists delivered enlightenment to a simple country girl, and neither is this an inversion in which the humble girl teaches the big city folks a thing or two about the real world. No, Kingsolver has a reverence for learning, and science wins the day, but she shows the way in which so many Americans are cut-off from understanding their stake in the climate change crisis. First, because they have other concerns–overdue bills and foreclosures, dying industries, dying towns, and also because they’ve become accustomed to seeing people just like themselves made a mockery of on television, and they start to believe that televised world is their reality. On a more practical level, whole populations lack access to decent education and resources like libraries. Kingsolver shows the ways in which climate-change denial becomes a kind of foundation myth, a way of defining self and survival, entirely entwined with personal and group identity. And that middle-class do-gooders know nothing about it– Kingsolver has a brilliant scene in which Dellarobia is urged by an environmentalist to take a pledge to reduce her carbon footprint. To bring tupperware for restaurant leftovers, when she’s not eaten in a restaurant for over two years; to carry a Nalgene instead of buying bottled water; to reduce intake of red-meat, when her family can barely afford any; and to fly less. Fly less. This to Dellarobia, who has never flown anywhere.

Most writers couldn’t pull this off, and Kingsolver doesn’t entirelythere are moments when we’re all too conscious that these characters have been born to have words put in their mouths– but the novel succeeds anyway for the greatness of its reach, the richness of its characters, its humour, for the depth of its author’s knowledge and understanding of the world, and her empathy for the people who inhabit it.

One thought on “Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver”

  1. JC says:

    I’m about ten pages into this, and I can already see how spot-on your review is. Especially the bit about characters being born to have words put into their mouths and the novel succeeding anyway. She’s a fascinating person, Kingsolver.

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