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flight behaviorFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper 2012
433 pages

Dense with themes and vivid with imagery, Flight Behavior deftly interlaces climate and ecology concerns with the narrow scope of reality to be found in America’s Bible Belt region.

Dellarobia Turnbow is only twenty-seven but she’s already been married for ten years. Pregnant at seventeen to a boy at her school in the small town of Featherstone, Tennessee, Dellarobia goes through with a rushed marriage to Cub Turnbow and moves into his parents’ house, where she’s made less than welcome. Within a year, she’s lost both the baby and her mother, her sole surviving family member. With no one to turn to and nowhere to go, she stays with Cub and makes the best of things on his family’s farm, working in a diner and shelving her dream of going to university.

Now with two kids – Preston, five, and Cordelia, eighteen months – and a small two-bedroom house on a corner of the Turnbow sheep farm, Dellarobia’s feeling of dissatisfaction and entrapment manifests into obsessive crushes on men who cross her path. On this pivotal autumn day, she’s ditched the kids with her mother-in-law, Hester, and taken to the mountain behind her house to meet “the telephone guy”, Jimmy, who’s several years younger than her and with whom she’s been flirting with behind the barn for a while now. But on her way up the hill (without her glasses) she comes across a life-changing sight: the trees appear to be in flames, yet there is no heat and it’s not spreading. Dellarobia wakes as if from a dream and realises just what she was prepared to throw away for a guy who isn’t even going to hang around, much less take her with him.

When she hears her father-in-law’s plans to clear-fell the entire mountain to make some money and help pay off his outstanding loan, Dellarobia is moved to persuade her slow but gentle husband, Cub, to see what’s up the mountain. The discovery takes everyone by surprise. Monarch butterflies by the millions have made a home in the trees, hanging like vast bunches of grapes from the branches and covering the trunks. Not fire: butterflies. Word spreads and the prevailing opinion is that it’s a miracle of God, and that Dellarobia had a vision – how else could she have known there was something up that mountain?

Word spreads and one day a scientist turns up at the house, looking for the butterflies. Ovid Byron is an ecologist and he is greatly concerned. Where the locals see a miracle, a thing of beauty they might be able to make some much-needed money off, Ovid sees a sign of climate change and habitat destruction. The monarchs shouldn’t be here, on the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee, it’s not a normal part of their migratory life-cycle and if the weather works against him, he envisions imminent extinction.

Dellarobia becomes increasingly interested in the monarch butterflies and what Ovid can teach her, and finds her first paying job in years working as an assistant in the makeshift lab set up in their barn. Her concept of the world and her place in it shifts, and with her growing sense of independence and understanding of what she’s capable of, several new realities hit home and she discovers in herself the kind of courage she needs to make a change in her own life. As spring starts to arrive and they continue to study, measure, weigh and watch the monarchs, with little hope that the butterflies will survive the cold and follow their usual life-cycle, Dellarobia too realises that things can’t go on as before, and that she too needs to follow those hidden instincts that seek to guide her steps, but have long been repressed.

This is a powerhouse of a novel, and a very impressive piece of work. As the first book by Kingsolver I’ve ever read (I also have The Lacuna, The Poisonwood Bible and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life to read), this has given me a good idea of her calibre: her skill with creating art from language, her ability to tackle so many themes so deftly, with both a sense of subtlety and an unapologetic frankness in a “let’s not beat around the bush” kind of way. Her characters are very realistic, their flaws balanced by their strengths, none of them defined by one distinctive characteristic but instead are people you have to figure out in all their shades of grey. And the setting is one of the most vivid characters in the whole story, tangible and yet just as mysterious to the reader as it is to the inhabitants of this forgotten, impoverished part of Tennessee.

And yet. And yet, I did struggle a bit with the prose. The narrative style is rich with detail, and I love books that are rich in detail. The trouble with Flight Behavior – if you can call it a “trouble” – is with the flow. The pacing is consistently slow and steady, taking its time to lay it all out, refusing to be hurried. The flow, though, is consistently erratic, drifting off to the side for a brief – or not so brief – tangent that’s interesting and usually related to developing a character and their history, but does make it a slower read than it would otherwise be. The narrative doesn’t follow a neat linear path, it stops and starts, drifts off and meanders back, like someone weighed down with weighty matters who nevertheless gets distracted easily and stops to weed the garden on their way inside for dinner. It’s a small thing, really, in the scheme of things, and it is part of the novel’s overall personality (this is one of those books that has a distinct personality and wouldn’t be the same at all if you changed even the slightest thing), but it made it hard for me to focus on the story and really sink into it.

The story follows the realistic passage of time, seasons, relationships, never hurrying things, never faking it, never contrived – except, I felt, that one little scene where Dellarobia glimpses Ovid naked. I didn’t think that added anything much except to consolidate Dellarobia’s ever-confused feelings, and for a moment I was worried the story would descend into self-indulgent drama (thankfully, it didn’t). Perhaps one of the interesting qualities of this novel is that it forces you to live the life of a Feathertown local, and Dellarobia in particular. I strongly felt that I lived there – was stuck there – in this poorly educated area, smothered by religious orthodoxy and small-town gossip, struggling to breathe in a life where nothing happens and you’re not allowed to do anything or make any changes. Dellarobia helped bridge the gap between readers and her people – people who would never read a book like this. Dellarobia has the potential to be so much more, and watching her struggle her way out of the rut of routine and daily grind and into a small pocket of air where she can stretch her brain and actually think about the future and what she wants, well it is satisfying and keeps the story from being too depressing.

The star of the story is, of course, the monarch butterflies. These insects are very familiar to us all – whether I’m living in Australia or Canada, I see them all the time (I had forgotten what they were called, though, and I knew nothing of their life-cycle, which is hugely fascinating and quite unique). Having looked at the photos available online, I can see why, without her glasses, Dellarobia thought the trees were on fire. It’s quite the spectacular sight. The premise of the story begins with a fact: the area in Mexico where the monarchs have spent their winters for thousands of years was largely destroyed in heavy rainfall after the mountain was clear-felled of trees, thus destroying the homes of the people who lived there. In Flight Behavior, Kingsolver takes this and adds changes to the climate in the region, forcing the monarch butterflies to behave differently and winter in a place they shouldn’t. As the scientists show, the concern is that climate change is affecting even the lifecycle of butterflies in ways that can’t be repaired.

Did Kingsolver choose the Appalachia Mountains as her setting because it enabled her to juxtapose the serious science of climate change and the ecology against the stubborn prejudice, religious narrow-mindedness and scepticism or outright suspicion commonly found in the populations of the Bible Belt (and the American South in general)? If so, it’s a more interesting and useful angle to take than choosing an area of better educated, more open-minded people. One of the recurring themes of the novel is why Dellarobia’s neighbours refuse to “believe” in climate change, and why they are so hostile to people like Dr Byron. The discussions she has with Ovid are really interesting, in this respect, and entirely understandable.

Humans in general aren’t much good at doing anything but living in the moment. We may look forward to something we’re planning to do in the future, and we may write Wills and save for retirement and discuss with our children what we want done with our bodies when we die. But these things are all fairly tangible, and part of the scope of our general lives. The trouble with climate change, is that we can’t really see it. The instances of freak weather is increasing, and you can see graphs showing depleted Arctic ice shelves, but in our day-to-day reality, it just isn’t something that we can really grasp. I know it’s happening, but it hasn’t yet affected my life. I still have to work, pay bills, make dinner, exercise and so on. And I think it must be a human survival mechanism that until forced to do otherwise, we stick with the same old way of living and hold onto the same expectations of lifestyle as we grew up with. That’s why hitting people’s wallets is such an effective way – one of the only ways – of making people change something in their lifestyle relating to climate change. It’s tangible, it’s here, it’s today. But how can you expect people to completely change the way they live their lives when, for a start, no one else is doing it, and for another, the impetus just isn’t there? It really will take an apocalypse to get us to change how we live: not because we feel we should, but because we have no other choice. Still, the discussions in Flight Behavior help make us more conscious of what’s really going on, and points out that climate change is a reality, not a disputed theory. And it helps people understand, in a self-reflective way, why so many people still say it’s a load of crap.

There are many great discussions in this novel, and many wonderful scenes. Scenes I loved include Dellarobia’s shopping trips, and the argument between Ovid and Tina which Dovey films with her phone and posts to YouTube. The scenes of sheep farming reveal just how different farming practices are in this area compared to how we farm sheep (I grew up on a sheep farm in Tasmania): interesting but oddly alien. Some passages I liked that I marked:

“If you’re interested in [Preston’s] education, get him a computer. If you happen to find a wallet full of money. He’s getting on the internet over at Hester’s, looking at pictures. He can just about read, did you know that? He knows a bunch of words.”
“Great. If he turns out smart like you I’ll be outnumbered for good.”
She felt blindsided. “Being smart, you’re going to hold that against me? What kind of message is that sending the kids?”
“You ell me. If you want them to have a computer and stuff, we need the logging money. Or” –he spread his hands–“we can keep our trees. And be hicks.”
“Right. We cut down the trees and get ourselves buried in mud like a bunch of hillbillies, because we’re afraid of raising our kids to be dumb hillbillies. Really you’re saying we just do it because that’s who we are,” she said, too loudly. “Who are we?” [p.174]

Dovey folded the last towel in the laundry basket. “Will you explain to me why people encourage delusional behavior in children, and medicate it in adults? That’s so random. It’s like this whole shady setup.”
“True. At what age do you cross over the line and say, ‘Now I’ll face reality?'”
“When you get there, send me a postcard,” Dovey sang.
Dellarobia thought, but did not say: There’s usually a pregnancy test involved. [p.181]

She elected not to tell him that first baby only lasted long enough to kick college in the butt and go on its way. He would ask why she didn’t try to go to school afterward. People who hadn’t been through it would think it was that simple: just get back on the bus, ride to the next stop. He would have no inkling of the great slog of effort that tied up people like her in the day-to-day. Or the quaking misgivings that infected every step forward, after a loss. Even now, dread still struck her down sometimes if she found herself counting on things being fine. Meaning her now-living children and their future, those things. She had so much more to lose now than just herself or her own plans. If Ovid Byron was torn up over butterflies, he should see how it felt to look past a child’s baby teeth into this future world he claimed was falling apart. Like poor Job lying on the ash heap wailing, cutting his flesh with a husk. That’s where love could take you. [p.232]

Cub shook his head. “Weather is the Lord’s business.”
She felt an exasperation that she knew would be of no use to this debate. She let it rise and fall inside her, along with wishful thoughts. Every loss she’d ever borne had been declared the Lord’s business. A stillborn child, a father dead in his prime.
“So we just take what comes?” she asked. “People used to say the same thing whenever some disease came along and killed all the children. ‘It’s part of God’s plan.’ Now we give them vaccinations. Is that defying God?”
Cub made no reply.
“Here’s the thing,” she said. “Why would we believe Johnny Midgeon about something scientific, and not the scientists?”
“Johnny Midgeon gives the weather report,” Cub maintained, and Dellarobia saw her life pass before her eyes, contained in the small enclosure of this logic. All knowledge measured, first and last, by one’s allegiance to the teacher. [p.261]

The people may be poor and poorly educated, people who have never left the state let alone the county, who live simple lives between church, home and farm and who are suspicious, if not outright hostile, of outsiders and foreigners – but Kingsolver also captures some other quality they possess, a kind of simplicity and earthiness and childlike naïveté that, while hardened by the bitterness of lost dreams and the hardships associated with lack of money and opportunities, doesn’t diminish the fact that they work hard and are fiercely loyal, they help each other (perhaps as much as they criticise each other) and are up against harsh odds, from the climate to the government’s priorities.

At its heart, this is a stirring, fiery novel of passion and eye-opening wonders, and the truths behind things taken at face value – not just the “miracle” of the butterflies, but the characters too, people like Hester whom Dellarobia thinks she’s got all figured out. I loved the play of nature and man-made weather patterns with Biblical imagery: it created a neat circle of cause-and-effect, of everything coming back to US, yet again. The novel may not have satisfied the pleasure I take in smooth prose and beautiful language but it did succeed admirably in its aims and tells an important story, both in terms of the bigger global picture and of one woman struggling with the life she’s living, her past choices and the people she shares her small world with, and who gains the courage – and the perspective – to follow a dream she once thought as gone as her first baby.

tlc tour host-1


Other stops on the tour:

flight behavior pbTuesday, June 4th: A Bookish Affair
Wednesday, June 5th: 50 Books Project
Monday, June 10th: Love at First Book
Tuesday, June 11th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Thursday, June 13th: she treads softly
Friday, June 14th: I Read a Book Once
Monday, June 17th: Suko’s Notebook
Tuesday, June 18th: Mom in Love With Fiction
Thursday, June 20th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Thursday, June 20th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf
Monday, June 24th: Amused By Books
Tuesday, June 25th: Joyfully Retired
Wednesday, June 26th: Wordsmithonia
Thursday, June 27th: Conceptual Reception
Monday, July 1st: Giraffe Days
Tuesday, July 2nd: The Well-Read Redhead
Wednesday, July 3rd: Dreaming in Books
Monday, July 8th: Peppermint PhD
Wednesday, July 10th: nomadreader
Thursday, July 11th: Olduvai Reads
TBD: Oh! Paper Pages

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