Barbara Kingsolver excels at using the simple lives of her characters to illustrate universal themes. In Flight Behavior, Dellarobia Turnbow, a poor housewife living in rural Tennessee, confronts some of the world’s most pressing problems: poverty, lack of education and, most significantly, the impact of climate change.
Though bright, Dellarobia missed out on college when her parents died and she became pregnant. Ten years later, she is stuck in an unsatisfying marriage with her high school beau, a sweet but simple-minded truck driver named Cub. They live on the farm of Cub’s parents with their young children.
The novel begins with Dellarobia hiking up the mountain on her in-laws’ property for a rendezvous with a handsome young repairman. Although she’d had a few sustained flirtations before—“falling off the marriage wagon, if only in her mind”— this would be the first time she actually strayed from Cub’s bed. As she wrestles with the complex emotions this instills in her, she suddenly feels as if she’d been engulfed in heatless flames. Her first interpretation is that God is warning her that her path leads to the fires of Hell. But then a more mundane explanation presents itself: millions of orange-winged monarch butterflies have settled upon the mountain.
The butterflies’ usual migratory nesting place in Mexico had been destroyed in a mudslide, the result of climate change and deforestation (this part of the story is based on an actual event). The now-homeless monarchs are wintering in Tennessee instead. The locals interpret the coming of the butterflies as a miracle and seek ways to profit from all of the attention. Dellarobia becomes something of a celebrity, especially after a photoshopped picture of her as the “butterfly Venus” spreads throughout the Internet.
But when biologist Ovid Byron arrives at Dellarobia’s door, the story of the butterflies becomes more complex. Dr. Byron has come to investigate this strange phenomenon. Intelligent, handsome and exotic (he was born in the US Virgin Islands), Dr. Byron becomes Dellarobia’s newest infatuation. To Dr. Byron, the presence of the butterflies in Tennessee is the exact opposite of a miracle; it is evidence of an environment gone haywire.
Dr. Byron explains the problem of climate change to Dellarobia (and, by extension, to the reader). Because he has taken her under his wing, this information comes through naturally and doesn’t feel forced. Kingsolver’s background as a science writer with a master’s degree in biology is evident here. She explains complex ideas well, and the smart-but-unschooled Dellarobia asks the kinds of questions readers might want answered.
The book’s environmental message is overt, yet Kingsolver manages to avoid writing a polemic. She mainly achieves this by presenting the climate change deniers of Dellarobia’s community as fully-imagined characters, rather than straw men. Indeed, Kingsolver is tougher on the environmental activists who invade the rural community. In the novel’s funniest scene, a well-meaning but clueless man tries to get Dellarobia to sign a sustainability pledge. As he goes through the elements of the pledge, it becomes clear that Dellarobia’s poverty has led her to live an unintentionally-green lifestyle. The hybrid-driving urban liberals have nothing on Cub, whose pick-up truck is on its third engine. The subtle message here is that affluence and environmentalism are incompatible.
Dellarobia’s neighbors lack education, but they aren’t stupid. Kingsolver paints a vivid picture of country life without falling into stereotypes. One of the real strengths of the novel is the narrative voice, a folksy patois that slips in more sophisticated language when necessary. A certain breed of sheep, for example, “came in every shade of a bad mood,” while the sheepdogs “moved in dutiful orbits around the men, perpetually alert to the flow of stock and the men’s wishes.”
Kingsolver portrays the sense of insecurity held by the rural poor, often the butt of late-night comedians’ jokes, and offers this insecurity as an explanation for their anti-scientific views. As the book makes clear, this failure to accept scientific evidence has real consequences, and those consequences are felt most deeply by the poor.
In clumsier hands, Flight Behavior would read as thinly-veiled pamphleteering. However, Kingsolver’s richly-drawn characters ensure that science takes a backseat to storytelling. Moreover, they illustrate that climate change is not a matter of vague consequences to be felt in the distant future, but rather a serious problem whose effects are already impacting ordinary people.