‘Flight Behavior’: New York Times Bestseller by Barbara Kingsolver

Up in the hills above Feathertown, Tennessee, Dellarobia Turnbow is about to turn her back on husband and kin. Then, she witnesses an environmental phenomenon: an enormous population of monarch butterflies have settled into the hills above her small town to wait out the winter. No one understands quite why this is happening, but the butterflies act as a crucible for each character’s motives in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

flight-behaviorFor Dellarobia, the butterflies open a door to escape the rhythms of domesticity that have been wearing on her. Forced into a shotgun wedding after getting pregnant by her high-school boyfriend, Dellarobia has been consigned to taking care of her two young children for ten years. She’s something of a rebel in this small town, but an impotent one; Dellarobia is content to stir the conversational pot, but isn’t doing much to change her own weary situation. So when Dr. Ovid Byron arrives to study the strange arrival of the butterflies, she quickly becomes his assistant. Whether she does this out of a need for intellectual stimuli or whether she’s acting on a budding attraction she feels toward him, she’s not quite sure.

One of the great strengths of Flight Behavior is Kingsolver’s deep compassion toward her characters, many of whom are easy to cast casual judgment upon. There’s a passive husband reluctant to stand up against his parents’ wishes, a cold and strong-willed mother-in-law, and a charismatic pastor. These are characters we’ve all seen before, but rare is the novelist who understands the motives of each of them: what makes them weak, and why despite those weaknesses, they’re worth rooting for.

In the same vein, Kingsolver takes a hard look at the virtuous among us, casting unflattering light on the self-righteousness of environmental crusaders, while also using the novel as a warning bell about the urgency of climate change. It’s a paradox she pulls off beautifully. No one is spared in her indictments: from the media outlets who are more interested in domestic drama than a seemingly slow-moving global crisis, to the green-conscience urbanites too full of self-righteousness to see the big picture. Though she convicts, she is able to convict with compassion.

In an interview with Stephen L. Fisher published in the Iron Mountain Review, she says, “I’m a hopeful person, although not necessarily optimistic.” If real progress is going to be made in the debate around climate change, we need voices like Kingsolver’s to be honest and convicting.

At one point Dellarobia realizes, “There is no life raft; you’re just freaking swimming all the time.” Stark though it may be, this is a warning that every reader must take to heart in regards to global warming: from those of us who are tempted to brush off climate change as liberal propaganda, to those who feel recycling or buying “green” products is enough. “Our trust is in the Lord” is a noble approach until it becomes an excuse to turn a blind eye to the reality of the consequences our own actions create.

Originally published in Issue 21 of Converge Magazine.

Photo (Flickr CC) by Ben K Adams.