Barbara Kingsolver’s Latest Novel ‘Flight Behavior’
Shows Climate Change In Real Time
Reading the opening scene of Flight Behavior, one could easily believe they’d somehow become immersed in a bad country western song — something like “Third Rate Romance, Low Rent Rendezvous.”
Protagonist Dellarobia Turnbow is fleeing the white clapboard house that has been at once her home and her prison since she was seventeen, to hook up with a guy who probably drives a pick up and aims to do her bad, but she can’t help herself because “… the anticipation of him prickled her skin.” On her way, she is waylaid by an ethereal vision of a forest aflame.
If this sounds prosaic, it’s because it is. The book starts slow, and teeters to the brink of cliché, albeit sporting some of the best prose you’ll ever read. But that flaming forest hangs out there like a metaphor without a point of reference for a little too long, risking a reader who isn’t so much intrigued, as frustrated.
But that’s before Kingsolver works her alchemy. In Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver proved she is a talented writer, capable of telling important and compelling stories in prose that flows with all the beauty, clarity and snap of a glacial stream. And though she takes her time in Flight Behavior, ultimately she delivers.
Climate change is the leitmotif of this novel. It is the driving force behind all that happens, and it is heralded by that flaming forest Dellarobia rushes through on her way to an assignation that never happens.
It turns out that the flames are Monarch butterflies, cast adrift by a combination of deforestation in their traditional breeding grounds in Mexico and a warming world.
Dellarobia is also adrift. She is the proverbial “smart girl” trapped by circumstance, and when Ovid Byron — a world class expert on Monarch butterflies — shows up on her property to study the monarchs, she begins a journey that will ultimately allow her to grow and escape her moorings. Ovid is attractive, serious, unattainable and therefore irresistible. To add fuel to this girl’s fire, he bonds with her son, the precocious Preston, in a way that none of her peers possibly could.
Ovid allows Kingsolver to dole out information on climate change in a way that is organic to the story. The tale he tells is told as a tragedy, in the sense that Alfred Lord Whithead put it: “The essence of tragedy lies in the remorseless working of things.” When Dellarobia tells Ovid “I don’t know how you get through the day, knowing what you know,” he eventually answers “For scientists, reality is not optional.”
Most novels built around climate change resort to narratives of dystopic futures, when the tragedy has already played out. Kingsolver immerses us in the tragedy as it unfolds in real-time. As a writer, this is a challenge — unwinding the slow motion destruction of the natural world by our species doesn’t lend itself to compelling narrative.
I struggled with this in my own novel, A Being Darkly Wise, which is also a contemporary tale centered on climate change. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether I succeeded or not, but Kingsolver definitely does.
Kingsolver embeds Dellarobia in a small town that is conservative, evangelical, emotionally stifling and in the midst of a near apocalyptic rainy season. In fact, all the seasons are askew. Winter is too warm, freak cold snaps appear when they shouldn’t — in short, it is experiencing climate change.
But the real genius of this novel is how Kingsolver intertwines the larger story of what is happening to the world, into the life of Dellarobia and her fellow townspeople. The struggles between faith and science, commerce and conscience, reverence and ennui are our struggles, the small triumphs and epic failures are our legacies.
One of the astounding things she accomplishes is to reveal why people fall for denier claptrap, and in the process, make them sympathetic. In fact, there isn’t a real antagonist in this story — another challenge for a writer, and another she takes on with skill and grace.
Those people, who seemed at first to be redneck caricatures, emerge as real people, and their desire to belong to the culture in which they find themselves is the force that makes them accept counterfactual denier talking points. Interestingly, recent research supports the idea that one’s peer group has more to do with whether one accepts climate science than education. At one point, after Ovid has gone through how grim the future looks as a result of global warming, Dellarobia says, “I’m not saying I don’t believe you, I’m saying I can’t.”
The author’s background in biology shows through. Her knowledge of the life cycle of the Monarch and the rhythms of the natural world is encyclopedic, and her skill as a writer allows her to showcase that knowledge in a way that interests and delights.
Kingsolver, who lives in the Appalachians that are the setting for this story, deals in shades of grey, and exhibits genuine sympathy and affection for all her rural characters. Dellarobia’s husband, Cub, isn’t a villain, he’s simply a gentle giant miscast as the mate of a smarter, more independent woman, who is with her only because she became pregnant. Her mother-in-law, Hester — the closest thing to an antagonist in the story, and an apparent paragon of piety and virtue — ends up having been trapped in her marriage in much the same way Dellarobia did. The minister of their church believes in stewardship of the Earth, not dominion over it. And just to keep things from becoming too sweet, Dellarobia’s best friend, Dovey, is a wisecracking rebel who sees the world through a cynic’s eyes.
Kingsolver evokes the claustrophobic world of rural Tennessee with equal grace and tolerance. It is a world Dellarobia begins to escape when she goes to work as a lab assistant for Ovid. The interaction between her and the more urban graduate students working with Ovid is as entertaining as it is evocative of how different their worlds are. At one point, Dellarobia resorts to telling one of the grad students who is amazed that she owns a sewing machine and is capable of actually using it, that it’s not “… like an atom smasher or anything.”
Kingsolver allows Dellarobia to transcend the limits of her environment. While her flame-red hair is obviously the same color as the Monarch, Kingsolver does not allow the Monarch much likelihood of doing the same.
She seems to be saying that we can still expect moments of grace and transcendence for individuals, but the world will not be so lucky.
Flight Behavior starts a little slow, but if you’re patient, you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse of people struggling to make a life in a world that is changing beneath their feet, told by one of the best contemporary writers out there.
John Atcheson, a former UUFSD Board President, DOE and EPA official, is the Climate Progress book reviewer. He has his own book out available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon, A Being Darkly Wise: A Novel Of Survival.