Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Flight Behavior is about climate change. It is also very much about beautifully flawed humans and the lengths to which we will go to connect to one another and to something larger than ourselves. It’s both earthbound and ethereal. It’s Barbara Kingsolver at her finest.
Dellarobbia Turnbow is a not-yet 30 year-old wife and mother of two living with her husband on her in-laws’ farm in rural Tennessee. Her tiny world is upended when, on her way to an extra-marital tryst, she witnesses what she believes is a vision of fire in the trees. When her in-laws begin talking about logging the mountain, Dellarobbia knows that she cannot let this happen to her “miracle.” But very soon she understands that what she witnessed was no miracle, but a colony of Monarch butterflies that has erroneously migrated to the Appalachian Mountains instead of Mexico. Her experience of surreal beauty in fact signals environmental disaster.
Kingsolver exposes the divisions over climate change with humor, passion, and sensitivity. Once the larger world learns of Dellarobbia’s butterflies, everyone seems to show up at her front door. News reporters, activists, curious neighbors, college students, and scientists come with varying purposes. She offers up her hospitality to one scientist, Ovid Byron, and he eventually creates a mobile science lab in her barn. It is Dellarobbia’s relationship with Ovid and the ways in which they challenge and inspire each other that is the heart of this beautiful novel. While Ovid is dismayed by the town members’ lack of education and their reticence to accept scientific evidence, Dellarobbia criticizes the scientific community for its failure to engage the public with compelling dialogue. One of my favorite scenes in the book occurs when an activist asks Dellarobbia to take a green living pledge. The suggestions for minimizing her impact are so laughable to her, because they are suggestions that have meaning only to the privileged few. To a woman who has never flown, this man suggests “flying less.”
It is difficult to suggest similar books to Flight Behavior. The novel’s subject matter is frequently explored in Science Fiction novels, and I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood as I was reading it. Atwood’s dystopic novels have a much bleaker tone, and they are set in a futuristic world. Kingsolver’s novel doesn’t give us this measure of comfort; the setting is current and realistic, and the characters are recognizable. Kingsolver has given us science fiction, but not Science Fiction.
Despite its sobering subject matter, Flight Behavior is a passionate and hopeful novel. Dellarobbia, a character whose own migration has been interrupted, is a strong, compassionate, and spirited protagonist whose metamorphosis is a delight to read. Perhaps this novel can spark conversations about climate change and environmental stewardship that are based on common sense and the common good rather than rigid and ill-fitting constructed camps of thought.