Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver, Faber, 448 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0571290789
In his eloquent re-election speech, President Barack Obama said: “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” The candidates had both been silent on this issue throughout the campaign for fear of upsetting voters. The subject that dare not speak its name finally came out. Climate change, the theme of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest important novel, Flight Behaviour, is on the agenda. The recent “superstorm” Sandy, which caused devastation on the eastern coast of America, makes her exploration of evidence and belief even more compelling.
Kingsolver’s fourteenth book is not the first to tackle big environmental or social issues. Since her first novel, Bean Trees (1988), through to her last, prize-winning, Lacuna (2009), Kingsolver, one of America’s most-loved authors, has been known for a certain didactic, ecofeminist stance. But she writes so beautifully that we forgive her the mini-lectures we also have to endure. Flight Behaviour is wonderfully written, domestic and miraculous, nearly magic-realistic, but firmly rooted in place and time. Her characters are flawed but rich in complexity and back story.
In a small, Appalachian town in Tennessee, Dellarobia and her husband, Cub Turnbow, eke out an existence on his parents’ poor, hillbilly sheep farm. Her in-laws, Hester and Bear Turnbow, have had to borrow money and Bear is planning to log the land to pay his debts. In the meantime, unseasonal rain is constantly falling.
Dellarobia is the twenty-eight-year-old heroine of the novel, pregnant at seventeen, forced into a shotgun wedding to Cub, a loving man who is “always in first gear”. Hester and Bear have built a small house on their farm for their son and his wife, whom they never really accepted. She has a late miscarriage, which is never spoken about by her husband, her family or anyone. She endures the next eleven years of marriage as a girl interrupted. Two children, Preston and Cordelia, come to complete their family and Della, though a dedicated mother, feels trapped by her boxed-in, stay-at-home existence, the lack of money and the loss of early dreams.
As a kind of escape, Dellarobia has inappropriate crushes on a variety of men, though she is never unfaithful. On an impulse, she plans to run away with the local telephone man and risks everything to meet him in the forest above their house. When she arrives before he does, she sees something to change her course - a vision of burning trees the colour of her flame-red hair. She is so struck by this vision, which she describes as feeling the inside of joy, that she decides to go back to her life and start again. No one even notices that she has gone.
Dellarobia becomes an overnight celebrity in the small town of Feathertown. Not religious herself, she is considered by some to be a saint, for receiving grace and first foretelling the miracle. We are in the territory of moving statues here. The truth, when finally discovered, is that the flames are thousands of bright orange butterflies.
Enter Prof Ovid Byron, dark-skinned, tall, exotic, arriving as if from another world to study the butterflies’ behaviour, bringing his small research team of graduate students. A lepidopterist and biologist, he has been studying this Monarch species throughout his whole illustrious career. (Kingsolver studied biology in college and graduate school).
What appears to be a miracle to many in this small church-going community is seen by Ovid to be a disaster, proof of a changing world. After thousands of years, the butterflies’ natural Mexican habitat, the small town of Michoacán, is destroyed by floods caused by logging and the Monarch’s flight pattern is disrupted.
Ovid’s arrival is to be the force that will change Dellarobia. It is also time for our education. Dellarobia asks what kinds of things one would study about a Monarch; she is told everything, from taxonomy and the effect of tachinid flies to the energetics of flight. The puzzle is why for the first time in recorded history the Monarchs have settled on the Turnbows’ family farm in Southern Appalachia. And the truth is that if they cannot survive the winter and mate, this beautiful species will become extinct. Ovid becomes spokesman and teacher for the book’s main themes and Dellarobia his eager student.
When Ovid is allowed to set up a lab in the Turnbow barn, he offers to pay Della for her help, recording and measuring. Through her first job outside the home, she discovers a life she has missed. Her almost-flight with the telephone man has turned into a discovery of herself. She is smart. She was supposed to go to college, the only one in her class. The work makes her feels as if her brain is changing, transforming her from chrysalis to butterfly, though there is no heavy symbolism.
Dellarobia’s journey is the meat of the novel. We are drawn to her by her humour, her irony, her genuine care of her children and even her mismatched marriage to her channel-surfing husband. Dovey, her best friend from childhood, shows us what Dellarobia used to be - smart, bookish, wild in her youth, a girl with big dreams, full of moxie and mettle. When they were young and rebellious they had a flight plan, to get out of town.
Until her job in the Monarchs’ lab, Dellarobia felt trapped - there are images of boxes everywhere. She is lonely staying at home, but is a caring, careful, creative mother who takes joy in her youngest girl baby’s wildness and delight in her son, Preston, who is smart as she is and wants to become a scientist. Kingsolver makes Della’s growth realistic. Like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the qualities that seem to transform her were already present, just dormant.
Grief and loss are the leitmotifs of the novel. There is a Mexican legend that the Monarchs are the souls of dead babies. Dellarobia mourns her first baby, who died when she was seventeen. No one ever talks about this child, who would be eleven now had he lived. Kingsolver links big issues of social and environmental change with domestic ones of the loneliness of marriage and being a stay-at-home mother. Always a feminist, she challenges stereotypes: Dellarobia says that people figure a mother’s IQ is somewhere between the ages of her children divided by their pyjama size. There are touches of Anne Tyleresque humour that relieve the moments of heaviness and didactic detail, but we cannot escape the doom of the planet’s fate.
Ovid tells her that though the butterflies are beautiful, that “Terrible things can have beauty”. He rails about the unstoppable processes of climate change, the loss of her children’s adulthood. If it gets too cold, the butterflies will die and there will be no next generation. If the butterflies can’t survive the new environment they will die out as a species. The implication is stark. It is this possibility of a lack of future for her children that leads her to accept the reality of climate change.
Tensions occur in the town between the church, the scientists, and Bear’s desire to log the land where the butterflies have landed. Dellarobia’s mother-in-law charges curious people who flock to see the “miracle”. Reporters and hippie “tree-huggers” swarm over the mountain.
Dellarobia tries to convince her father-in-law and husband to stop the planned logging, arguing that the presence of the butterflies means that something is really wrong. She finds unlikely support from her mother-in-law, Hester, previously always a source of belligerence. The doubters say that weather is God’s work. She explains to Ovid her theory that most people are afraid to face up to a bad outcome. Dellarobia/Kingsolver knows that humankind cannot stand very much reality.
The apocalyptic novel is full of religious imagery. Kingsolver evokes Job and the loss of children; Moses and the burning bush is Dellarobia’s first thought when she sees the trees of orange butterflies. The constant rain brings people to ask should they start building an ark. The prophecy of fire and flood permeates, but Kingsolver doesn’t provide an easy rainbow ending. She is too concerned about warning us that climate change may bring about the destruction of the earth as we know it.
The fate of Dellarobia’s eleven-year marriage to Cub is part of the ending of the novel. Her transformation (no spoilers) is complete and she has a new flight plan, but Kingsolver doesn’t allow us the certainty of her future or ours. For her the world’s future is dependent on those who will read this book, are prepared to face a bad outcome and are willing to do something about it.
Those who read the novel will do so because they have come to love Kingsolver’s books or they believe in the causes she espouses. They will be prepared to work through the didacticism to the genuine lyricism and beauty of a book full of memorable characters and magnificent writing. It will have been worth it.
Brenna Katz Clarke if former head of English at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin.