In her engaging latest novel, Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver whips up a lush tale featuring a young farm wife, science, faith, media exploitation, and political opportunism. Widely recognized for her literary achievements, Kingsolver is the author of 14 books, including The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Trees. While this latest novel wraps the reader in topical climate change and science, it doesn’t overpower Kingsolver’s wit and warmly-lit human characters.
Kingsolver lived and wrote for years in Arizona before returning to live on her family farm in southern Appalachia. Before she devoted her career to writing, she had earned degrees in biology and had worked as a scientist. With Flight Behavior, she has arrived at a storytelling form that underscores her intellect as a scientist while revealing her skill at creating compelling characters, environmental drama, and lyrical prose. Seldom have a theme and an accomplished fiction writer been so well suited for each other.
The story opens in Appalachia just after a relentlessly rainy summer and autumn. It’s sheep sheering time. An unhappy homemaker, Dellarobia Turnbow, sets out on a wet slog to meet a man for a tryst on a mountain near her rural home. Before she reaches her rendezvous point, nature delivers a jolt. Dellarobia peers through an overlook on the path and is struck by the sight of the entire forest glowing with millions of orange monarch butterflies.
“Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that,” Kingsolver writes. “A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something.” She believes it’s a miracle.
Dellarobia returns to her life but doesn’t talk about her vision of the trees alight with orange. When she learns the forest is to be clear-cut for logging, she convinces her father-in-law to survey the land first. One day the in-laws, her husband, and the rest of the family trek to the mountain top and see the spectacle. It’s more disturbing — and freakishly unnatural — than she could have imagined. Soon, the family believes Dellarobia was sent by God with her vision.
Kingsolver writes about “weather-weirding” and how it’s affecting the Feathertown, Tennessee, community: “The trees had lost their leaves early in the unrelenting rain. After a brief fling with coloration they dropped their tresses in clumps like a chemo patient losing her hair.” She later continues, “The idea of December seemed impossible. A few times when people had asked if she was ready for Christmas, she’d actually drawn a blank: ready for what? And of course felt idiotic afterward … But the weird weather must have bewildered everyone to some extent … It felt like no season at all. The season of burst and leaky clouds.”
In Flight Behavior, Kingsolver through her writing examines how people can confront belief systems. She starts by placing Dellarobia into the focus of her church. Then, as distressing new patterns of migration for the monarchs become clear, she introduces Ovid Byron, a charismatic entomologist who comes to study why the monarchs are laying eggs in Tennessee, and not Mexico. When Byron makes friends with the family, barriers go down and changes emerge. He explains his work to Dellarobia’s son, Preston. Kingsolver writes:
“But a scientist doesn’t just make a wild guess, you know. He measures things. He does experiments. How can we discover the truth about Mr. Monarch?”
“Ask somebody?” Preston suggested.
“We ask his family.”
“How?” Preston was hooked. A small, four-eyed fish.
“There are ways to do this,” Ovid said, leaning back in his chair, crossing his long legs, an ankle on his knee. “People have done it. And do you know what they found? All his relatives are tropical butterflies. In his whole family, which is called the Danaus family, Mr. Monarch is the only one clever enough to seek his fortune in a cold place.”
Kingsolver throughout her narrative takes the reader on a splendid journey — of Appalachia as a sense of place, of global climate change and what it means to humans and the natural world (“When the storm broke, the world had changed. Flat rocks dotted the pasture with their damp shine, scattered on a hillside that looked like a mud finger painting.”), and of the changes in everyone — from religious fundamentalists to environmentalists and the media.
When repercussions of man-made global warming become clear, it becomes a moral problem. And everyone brings a new point of view. Her literary style brings together complex science, human drama, and how circumstances can lead to unexpected consequences.
Flight Behavior is published by Harper Collins Publishers, ISBN # 978-0-06-212430-2.