Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior: A Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. 437 pp.
Barbara Kingsolver is a fine writer. One can learn a lot about writing just from carefully reading her superbly crafted work. She is particularly good at metaphors and similes, and at double or parallel meanings.
Kingsolver writes fiction, but she is also a science and nature writer in both her fiction and nonfiction. In her more substantial novels, she is a social-political observer and critic. Her nonfiction includes Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
I’ve read only a few of Kingsolver’s books, but of these the best and most significant so far are The Poisonwood Bible (about a missionary family in the Congo) and her most recent novel, Flight Behavior.
Flight Behavior is the story of Dellarobia Turnbow and her family, who live in Appalachian Tennessee—the same general area where Kingsolver herself resides with her family.
The book is called Flight Behavior because small, red-haired Dellarobia, 28, is seeking ways to flee her stagnant and dead-end (as she sees it) marriage. She and Cub “had to get married” during their senior year in high school. Dellarobia’s pregnancy ended in miscarriage, but now Dellarobia and Cub have two small children, a bright six-year-old son named Preston and a baby girl named Cordelia. (Kingsolver says she got virtually all the novel’s first names from her own family tree.)
Dellarobia is one fascinating character. Bright and inquisitive, she had hoped to go to college. Her one really good teacher in high school, her English teacher, told her she should. In high school, Dellarobia loved reading.
In the novel’s opening scene, Dellarobia is running away from her marriage. She has succumbed to the advances of a much younger man, a telephone lineman who for past weeks showered her with attention. Dellarobia has agreed to meet Jimmy, as she knows him, at a remote turkey blind well up the mountain on her in-laws’ farm behind her home. She knows this is totally foolish, but she is desperate for an exit.
But Dellarobia does not go through with the tryst. And here the real story begins—the mega-story for which Dellarobia’s plight is the carrier and context. As she climbs the mountain, she encounters something very strange. She sees clumps of things hanging from branches—“like giant bunches of grapes” dangling “from every tree she could see.” Some kind of fungus? “Trees were getting new diseases now. Cub had mentioned that. The wetter summers and mild winters of recent years were bringing in new pests that apparently ate the forest out of house and home.” Here emerges another key theme in the book: the weather, and how it’s changing.
What are these odd things she’s seeing? She comes to an overlook where she can see the valley below. “The view out across the valley was puzzling and unreal, like a sci-fi movie.” Dellarobia sees that “the whole mountainside that lay opposite, from top to bottom, . . . was thickly loaded with these bristly things. The fir trees in the hazy distance were like nothing she’d ever seen, their branches droopy and bulbous.” Just then the sun comes out and it seemed “the forest blazed with its own internal flame. . . . Every bough glowed with an orange blaze.” “Jesus,” Dellarobia says. She is “not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close.”
Frightened, Dellarobia forgets about Jimmy and rushes back down the mountain to her home, where everything appears to be normal.
What Dellarobia has discovered, she soon learns, is a huge off-course swarm of migrating monarch butterflies—millions of them. They are not supposed to be in Appalachia. Each year they migrate in their millions from Central Mexico to southern Ontario and other sites in North America.
So the butterflies turn out to be the real stars of this drama. We experience them through the eyes and lives of Dellarobia Turnbow and her Eastern Tennessee neighbors. Also through the eyes of Dr. Ovid Byron, a prize-winning ecologist who has spent his life studying the monarchs. He shows up on the Turnbow farm and sets up a laboratory in the barn behind Dellarobia’s house, intent on understanding the mystery of why the monarchs showed up in the wrong place.
Dr. Byron quickly sees that Dellarobia is alert and bright, and he hires her to help in his lab. This is a whole new life and experience for Dellarobia. It whets her desire not only to understand the butterflies but also to make something much more of her life, to become more than a nearly impoverished Appalachian housewife trapped in tight budgets, in a culture of low expectations, and under the thumb of her next-door mother-in-law, Hester Turnbow.
Dellarobia also finds herself falling head over heels in love (or perhaps infatuation) with Dr. Ovid Byron. He becomes her fantasy Romeo. He is oblivious to this, however, and when it turns out later in the book that Dr. Byron is happily married, Dellarobia’s ardor cools. There is a funny line when Dellarobia discovers that Dr. Byron is married.
What is her name, Dellarobia asks.
“Juliet,” he replies.
Give me a break! Dellarobia thinks.
Hester Turnbow and her husband Bear Turnbow attend a fairly new and growing church called Mountain Fellowship—certainly not typical of rural or small-town Appalachia, though perhaps Kingsolver actually knows of such a church. Since her in-laws attend this church, Dellarobia and her family are more or less obliged to attend also, though Dellarobia’s attendance seems somewhat sporadic.
Many people in the area, and in Mountain Fellowship church, think the monarchs’ appearance is a miracle, and that Dellarobia had had a vision of their coming. The local news, and later the networks, pick up the story. A TV crew shows up at Dellarobia’s door. She takes them up the mountain, and standing on a hill with the millions of butterflies clustering in the valley behind her she is filmed answering questions. When the interview is broadcast it so distorts the story, however, both of Dellarobia and of the butterflies, that Dellarobia is chagrined.
The interview gets picked up on CNN, then goes viral through YouTube. Suddenly Dellarobia is famous, much to her embarrassment and the jealousy of her neighbors. (This is the first novel I’ve read in which the Internet is virtually a character.)
The really big story in the book is the monarchs themselves. From Dr. Byron, Dellarobia learns their story, their ecology. No single monarch ever makes the long migratory round trip, Mexico to the north and back. Rather the first batch flies to Texas, where they find essential milkweeds and lay their eggs. Their offspring fly north and repeat the cycle. Only the third generation flies later to overwinter in Mexico.
“How can they do that?” Dellarobia asks.
Dr. Byron laughs. “You’re looking at one crazy man who has been asking that same question for twenty years.”
Dellarobia finds that this “sudden vision filled her with strong emotions that embarrassed her, for fear of breaking into sobs. . . . How was that even normal, to cry over insects?”
The problem, Dr. Byron explains, is that climate change is disrupting an age-old pattern, threatening the monarchs’ very survival.
Later when Dellarobia tries to explain all this to her husband Cub as they’re out on the hill behind the house repairing fences, his response is, “Weather is the Lord’s business.”
Dellarobia’s in-laws raise sheep, and the care of sheep is another part of the storyline. Dellarobia is surprised to learn that just as Dr. Byron knows a lot about butterflies, her mother-in-law Hester, a mountain woman, knows a whole lot about sheep. Kingsolver her does a clever thing, showing that both local Appalachian culture and sophisticated academia in fact have rich storehouses of important knowledge.
The most poignant moment in the book, to me, comes toward the end when Dellarobia dramatically revives a lamb born prematurely on a snowy hillside. Dellarobia had had her own premature baby.
By the end of the book we see clearly that this is a book about parallels—parallel lives with interwoven ecologies. Parallels between human, insect, and animal life. Dellarobia, the monarchs, the sheep.
Most of the monarch butterflies die. Yet some survive to start a new colony, a “bud colony.” Perhaps there is hope for this crop of monarchs.
At the end of the book Dellarobia herself determines to start a new life—go to college and give her children better opportunities. Make it possible for her son Preston to become a scientist, like Dr. Byron, which is now his dream.
In the final scene, heavy rains run down the mountain behind Dellarobia’s house, rising into a flood. Cub and the children are away for the day. Dellarobia goes out to see, and is nearly swept away by the current. She struggles through water up the hill and secures herself along the fence. She turns to watch the swelling current that grows so strong that it sweeps her car away. Then her house itself is lifted from its cement-block foundation and drifts away, “departing as gently as a ocean liner.”
She watches the water, and a flock of starlings that land briefly on land not yet submerged. But in the sky she sees something else: monarch butterflies. “Not just a few, but throngs, an airborne zootic force flying out in formation, as if to war.” Higher up she sees even more. “Their numbers astonished her. Maybe a million.” So “here was the exodus” of the new surviving generation. “They would gather on other fields and risk other odds, probably no better or worse than hers.” She watches “the fire bursts of wings reflected across the water, a merging of flame and flood. Above the lake of the world, flanked by white mountains, they flew out to a new earth.” (Did someone say eschatology?)
This book may be fiction, but it is a whole lot more truthful about the natural and social world we live in than is a great deal of non-fiction today. In a note at the end Kingsolver explains that the story is totally plausible, given what we now know about monarch butterflies and climate change.
I get the feeling that there is a lot of Barbara Kingsolver in Dellarobia, or vice versa, despite obvious differences. Barbara Kingsolver was born in 1955 in Maryland and was raised in rural Kentucky. She began her writing career as a science writer.
Kingsolver’s prose is not always easy—sometimes a bit cryptic. I puzzled over several sentences, and in a couple instances never did figure out what she meant. However she makes clever use of humor, satire, and sometimes sarcasm—especially in the mouths of her characters, notably Dellarobia.
Above, I mentioned metaphors and similes. A sampling:
“The audience [congregation] heaved into verse four of ‘What a Friend,’ dragging it like a plow through heavy clay.”
“Dellarobia began dismantling the octopus of warm, stuck-together clothing” from the dryer.
“The pasture fence ran so close to the house on this side, its wire mesh spanned her view like bars on a window.”
“She was dismayed by the crowd of people who stood close together on her own front lawn, all facing the house as if expecting it to perform.”
“She could see that his old generosity was still there, but was sometimes being help captive by despair, like a living thing held underwater.”
The book is saturated with Scripture. Kingsolver obviously knows her Bible—however much of it she actually believes.
The first chapter is titled “The Measure of a Man” and the last is “Perfect Female.” Several of the chapter titles interweave the local and the global, such as “National Proportions,” “Span of a Continent,” and “Continental Ecosystem.” Nearly all these titles have double meanings. Mostly the parallel is between the world of the butterflies and Dellarobia’s own world, as is true of the book’s title itself.
Fundamentally, this book is about ecology. Ecology not only of butterflies, but of all of life. It is about the ecology of human relations, family life, sex, and the interdependence between everything human and all other living things, and their ecological relationship to nonliving things. Biblically and theologically speaking, as well as scientifically, this is the only proper way to understand ecology.
Formally, ecology is the branch of science that deals with the relations of living things to one another and to their physical surroundings. This includes the study of human interaction with the environment in all its complexity. As Dr. Ovid Byron explains to Dellarobia, ecology means studying “biological communities. How populations interact. It does not mean recycling aluminum cans.” (Not meant to suggest that we should not recycle, of course.)
Barbara Kingsolver understands spirituality and ecology and knows a lot about the Bible and Christianity. Unfortunately, she fails to bring to bear a fully Christian perspective in this novel, as was true also with The Poisonwood Bible. Still, this is a book Christians should read.
Finally, this is a book that begs to be made into a movie.
Oh, and the monarch butterflies. Watch this link: