In 2004 Barbara Kingsolver moved from Tucson, where she had lived since 1978, to southern Appalachia. This marked a return to her roots, migrating back to an ancestral place, like the butterflies in her latest novel, Flight Behavior
might once have done. She must feel right at home there as she has written a wonderful book set in the fictional Appalachian town of Feathertown, Tennessee. The flight of the title refers not only to the arrival of hordes of butterflies, but flights of various sorts undertaken by her characters
Like Moses, Dellarobia Turnbow climbs a mountain and sees a vision. Instead of a flaming bush she sees a flaming forest, alive with millions of Monarch butterflies. As with Moses, what she saw changed her life. Of course her motivation was a bit different. Big Mo was seeking guidance from God on how to lead his people. Dellarobia was leaving her husband and two kids to take up with her latest romantic entanglement, looking to fly rather than to lead. But visions have a way of changing people, or maybe enhancing them.
Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something. She could save herself.
Not really understanding what it was she had seen, Dell takes the event as a sign and changes her course. Change can be good. The novel opens with
A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.
What is worth keeping and what should be tossed? In one’s life and in the wider world?
We see this world through Dellarobia’s eyes. She makes a careful examination of her life, in an environment in which unexamined is the way to go. She is a bright woman of 27, married as a result of an adolescent mistake to a decent, if unimaginative man, with two kids, staying in a small house on her in-laws’ property, stuck in her world with not much to look forward to.
An unseasonable season of rain (forty days worth, maybe?) has left the area soaked, even more impoverished and vulnerable than usual.
The tree was intact, not cut or broken by the wind. What a waste. After maybe centuries of survival it had simply let go of the ground, the wide fist of its root mass ripped up and resting naked above a clay gash in the wooded mountainside. Like herself, it just seemed to have come loose from its station in life. After so much rain upon rain this was happening all over the county…
But this new, winged, arrival has caused some excitement. One may wonder what millions of Monarch butterflies are doing gathering en masse in rural Tennessee. When word of the wondrous visitation gets out, interests of all sorts try to interpret its significance and some try bending the event to their own purposes. Some see simple beauty. Those with a churchy bent see the hand of God. Those of a scientific inclination seek to find out why the butterflies chose this place for their nest, without regard to a higher power, seeing an alarming disruption in nature. These critters are supposed to gather in Michoacan, in Mexico, right? What are they doing here? Some property owners look to make a little cash by leading visitors. Some are eager to see the butterflies gone, so they can cut and sell the lumber on that land. Eco-warriors seek to use the event as a tool for spreading their
Kingsolver shows a wide range of perspectives on the event. She brings in the strong presence of a heavy-hitter scientist with an ironic, artsy name, Ovid Byron. He not only sets up shop to study the phenomenon, complete with a camper and crew, but sees Dellarobia’s intelligence and curiosity and encourages her, even hiring her to help with his project. Kingsolver got her masters and began her working life in biology, after all, not creative writing. It is clear that with her expertise as a biologist it is her scientist words Ovid speaks when explaining how the biology here works. And it is activist Kingsolver’s words he speaks when he takes on the media.
Can it be a coincidence that when red-haired (University of Tennessee orange) Dell and African American Ovid Byron come together they match the Monarch coloration?
The major underlying natural issue addressed here is global warming, how changes to the global environment can result in significant changes in peoples’ lives. The book opens with talk of the unnatural, relentless rain that has been watering remote Feathertown. What causes this? What happens when it rains so much? The same thing in Appalachia as has happened in places far away. Nothing good. It was surprising to learn that excessive rain can damage even the wool on living sheep.
What happens when you are not where you should be? If you are a person, it might mean unhappiness, a feeling of frustration and failure. If you are, say, a species of butterfly, it might mean an absolute existential crisis and an attempt to survive by setting up shop in a new, not-yet-completely-destroyed location.
Offering a local perspective is one of the primary elements of the novel. Barbara Kingsolver writes about places she knows. For the African setting of Poisonwood Bible
, she drew on the time she had lived there with her family. But she was raised in Kentucky. And it is clear that she has a pretty good sense of the locals. Part of Kingsolver’s purpose here (we believe) is to offer up an image of what life is like for real people in Appalachia.
In recent years ecologically sustainable development in environmentally endangered areas has shifted methodology. These days attempts are made to engage local residents, and give them a reason for becoming involved with and gaining from protection efforts. Simply trotting out experts and telling the locals to change their evil ways is not exactly effective. That dynamic is given a nice, if somewhat staged look. A straw man of a northeastern liberal bent descends on the town and starts handing out leaflets urging people to take the pledge. In this case that means promising to change a whole list of behaviors. Turns out that this list is mostly irrelevant to the locals. Things like “eat less meat” when the problem for so many here is to get enough. His list urges a promise to re-cycle, to people who shop for clothing at the second hand shop, and so on. It is a brilliant way of making it clear that it is worth actually knowing something about local life before preaching.
It is a difficult life folks lead in Feathertown, a place in which the science teacher offers his students the option of shooting hoops instead of learning science, a place where a Christmas shopping trip is to the second hand store. What of the farmer unable to pay his mortgage unless he sells off wooded land to clear-cutters? What of the income lost because wool has been damaged by so much rain? Kingsolver points out the limitations on the lives of the locals, and how even those with abilities and dreams beyond what can be offered locally are confronted with roadblocks should they try to spread their wings. Her attention is not solely on the hardships of the place. There is also respect. She makes it very clear that even though they might not call it science, farmers practice an applied version, requiring as much scientific method as the search for a cancer cure. She points out the rugged beauty of a thing like hands-on sheep-shearing and clearly mourns its passing. Kingsolver actually raises sheep, so the craft may not be quite dead yet.
Kingsolver offers a nice cast of characters, to whom she gives substance. Dell has a snarky sense of humor that I particularly enjoyed. Hubby, Cub, is a decent sort, and we get a sense of him, limitations and all. Their son, Preston, is the kind of kid most intelligent parents dream of, an eager, hungry learner. The scenes of Dellarobia’s with her bff, Dovey, are invigorating. And it is fascinating to see the change over time in the relationship Dell has with her mother-in-law, Hester, and in learning the secret that Hester has so carefully hidden.
Kingsolver ingeniously counterpoints the nature events that define the story with the experiences of her characters. Dellarobia searches for the right place to be just as the butterflies do. There are parallels to the butterflies’ experience of having their homes washed away in floods. And, like the beautiful invaders, Dell must undergo a metamorphosis, gathering sustenance where she can find it, in order to wend her way to the next stage in her life.
Sometimes reflection alters one’s view of a film, a piece of music or a book. On the first run through, I felt that at times the book was a bit preachy. Kingsolver does drag out disposable characters to make a point here and there. But the process of reviewing causes one to look closer and with that effort my appreciation for the book grew. Initially I was taken with some passing humor. While there certainly is humor here, much of it centered around the doings at a local church, some of which might resonate for viewers of GCB, this is a serious book, addressing serious matters. The humor leavens the tale, but this is about our world becoming unhinged and about people finding their way to their best places. Kingsolver offers a caring, nuanced look at life in Appalachia and raises our awareness of what real global warming looks like to actual people. If you haven’t already gotten your hands on this volume, fly to your bookstore before it is too late. Ok, OK, I know it is not on sale until November, but you can still flutter over to the bookstore or library and put in an order, or a hold.
PS - For what it’s worth I see Amy Adams or maybe Jennifer Lawrence as Dellarobia, Lance Rettig as Ovid, Melissa Leo as Hester.
PPS – I am not much taken with the cover design, at least the one on the ARE. It consists of hundreds of tear-shapes that do not much suggest flight to me, but rather leaves floating on a pond, or even reptile scales. What am I missing here?
And Kingsolver’s web site
is worth a visit -
As is this one
on the Monarchs’ Michoacan habitat