It’s a rare pleasure to write about a book I like as much as this one. The challenge is to convey what I think is so good about it. Is it the writing? Or what it’s about? It’s both. Kingsolver addresses a difficult problem with rare humanity.
Dellarobia Turnbow lives on a small sheep farm in the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee with her husband Cub and two young children, and in much closer proximity to her in-laws than she might wish. Seeking escape from a life she finds dreary and inhibiting, she sets out one morning to commit adultery. But on the way, she comes across a life-changing phenomenon: a mass of orange monarch butterflies clustering in the trees in a gully above her house. At first it seems like a miracle, a thing of surpassing beauty; only later does she learn that the butterflies are there because of the destruction of their usual winter roosting place, and that their presence signals a dire alteration in the climate. But global warming is a foreign language in Feathertown, deep in the American Bible belt, where ‘weather is the Lord’s business’. How will Dellarobia and her family deal with the complications the butterflies bring into their lives?
Kingsolver has chosen a brilliant way of writing about climate change. She simply shows it in action. She never lectures; rather she allows her characters to see and understand, to attribute it all to God, or simply to find it all too hard. And along the way, related stories are being told. There is the entomologist who despairs of making moral judgements about the science, but finds himself doing so, and the Pastor who preaches human responsibility for stewardship of God’s creation. And then there’s the butterflies, so much in the wrong place, so much at the mercy of the weather, but still a thrilling presence in the book.
There are other stories woven in and out of the climate one, principally that of Dellarobia and her husband Cub– their marriage, their relations with Cub’s parents, the work on their farm, their parenting. All these undergo changes because of the butterflies, but also because of the pattern of their lives before this time. Dellarobia finds to her surprise that her mother in law, Hester, also has a story to tell. Kingsolver writes in a warm, human way; her mastery of dialogue is brilliant. All her characters are afforded the dignity of being taken seriously, and shown as fully rounded; there is no one without some faults, but they also have redeeming features. She never mocks their lives or their beliefs. Dellarobia struggles to explain these to outsiders, and is herself frustrated by much of her world. But she resents people who sneer at them – as northern liberals are wont to do. Reading about the depressed local town, where most of the shops, except for the $2 outlet, are shut, reminded me of two other books I’ve reviewed recently – Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, by Joe Bageant and The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz. Flight Behaviour gives a no less graphic picture of poverty than either of these, but Kingsolver does it with more empathy. In a nice touch, an environmental activist wants Dellarobia to sign a pledge to reduce her carbon footprint, but she is too poor to engage in any of the sort of consumption he wants her to give up. One of them is to fly less.
The narrative flows so smoothly it appears effortless, but the book’s title gives a hint about how it is actually all underpinned by the metaphor of flight, as well as the reality of flight that is part of the butterflies’ migration. Dellarobia is in flight when she comes across the butterflies, which are of course flying around – though they are also clustered in the trees. Her life seems to be ‘flying from pillar to post’. But ‘Whatever incentive she might have for flying away, there it was, family, her own full measure, surrounded by a cheap wire fence built in one afternoon a long time ago’. She has ‘fantasies of flight when there was no flight. Nothing, really, but walking away on your own two feet’. It’s nothing so obvious as one story mirroring the other; it’s rather a series of gentle reminders that the lives of people and butterflies are connected.
Kingsolver’s story is fiction, but there is an element of fact – beyond the terrible fact of climate change. The mountain in Mexico where the butterflies winter was destroyed by a landslide in 2010. But they didn’t move to Tennessee, returning still each winter to Mexico. It is also a fact that they are increasingly threatened; a report in September 2013 says that the already low North American numbers appear to be falling even further. The butterflies can be found in other parts of the world, including Australia, where the species is known as the Wanderer, but not in such numbers as in North America.
You can read more about Barbara Kingsolver here. I’ve also really liked the other two of her books that I’ve read, and you can read my review of Prodigal Summer here, and The Lacuna, which won the Orange Prize in 2010, here. Flight Behaviour was published in 2012.