A tiny woman with flame-colored hair, she is racing up the mountainside to toss her life away — hustling up the High Road in sexy, ill-fitting secondhand boots, dogged by the urge for a cigarette, lured forward by the thrill of a tryst.
Smart but scandalously undereducated, poor, beautiful, and bored beyond endurance, she is crushing hard on the amber-eyed charmer she’s on her way to meet. As Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “Flight Behavior” begins, our heroine, one Dellarobia Turnbow, is 28 and fleeing an existence that has become untenable, desperately trading the familiar safety of her good-hearted, dull-witted husband and their two small children for she’s not sure what.
En route, at an overlook, she’s seized by the awareness that something is horribly, frighteningly awry. “Nearly all the forest she could see from here, from valley to ridge, looked altered and pale, the beige of dead leaves. These were evergreen trees, they should be dark, and that wasn’t foliage. There was movement in it. The branches seemed to writhe.” She can’t quite tell what she’s looking at — partly because, out of vanity, she’s left her glasses at home. What she perceives, when the sun emerges and the light shifts, is something of a Technicolor miracle: “Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze,” yet there is no roar of fire, no heat.
For Dellarobia, who is not religious, who knows that God has better things to do than micromanage her affairs, it is nonetheless a Moses-on-the-mountain, road-to-Damascus moment, and it tells her, albeit in less than biblical detail, how she must live. Abandoning her exodus, she returns to her in-laws’ hardscrabble sheep farm, reclaiming her place there but determined now to save her children and herself, to “steer her family toward something better than this.”
The sight that seemed so otherworldly turns out to be very much of this realm, portending not divine benevolence but cataclysmic peril. Tiny creatures with flame-colored wings are encrusting the Turnbow family trees: millions of monarch butterflies, alighting to spend the winter in southern Appalachia, far from their usual Mexican migration spot. Climate change has chased them north, possibly too far. If the mercury drops into the mid-20s, it could spell the demise of the species.
For Dellarobia and her inquisitive 5-year-old son, Preston, this intellectual activity is like oxygen to the brain.
Our stewardship of this warming, melting planet, with its rising seas and alarming new weather extremes, is the primary concern of Kingsolver’s tale. Encoded from the first sentence with the language of Christianity, it’s set in a rural, deep red pocket of the country, where God is presumed to work in mysterious ways and climate change is perceived as an elitist lie.
In Feathertown, Tenn., the autumn has brought rains that will not stop. The neighbors’ orchard is rotting, tree roots slip their moorings in waterlogged soil, and the mountainside forest, thick with winged refugees, is in danger of being clear-cut and leaving mudslides behind. For Kingsolver, the tree is not a symbol of life but a herald of death. The book’s question is whether we can steer the earth toward something better than this. Or have we made a mess beyond repair?
In the real world, we’ve just seen a superstorm wreak havoc on a chunk of the Northeast and, in the last days of the presidential campaign, coax an Obama endorsement from Michael Bloomberg, mayor of a ravaged New York City, who cited the urgent need for politicians to confront climate change. “Flight Behavior,” then, is very much of the moment, and these dangers are not cozy to consider. What’s striking is that the high-stakes fictional world Kingsolver creates is one where we, as readers, want to linger.
Much of that appeal has to do with the humor she laces through the book, as when Dellarobia earnestly explains the local etiquette: “Some of the kids living down this road might steal your lawn mower out of your garage to buy Oxycontin, but they’d leave a note, you know? ‘Thank you ma’am. I apologize. Please hold me in your prayers.’ ”
Even more has to do with Kingsolver’s characters. She writes, in an author’s note, that “virtually all the first and last names that appear in this novel (remixed)” come from her own family history, so bear with her as she insists on dubbing her leading man Ovid Byron. He is a lovely man, handsome and kind, a Harvard-educated entomologist who arrives in Dellarobia’s front yard one morning, asking to see the butterflies. The appearance of the monarchs, and the church-fostered belief that Dellarobia foresaw them in a vision, have made a local celebrity of her. From a newspaper story, word spread.
To a family that’s never crossed a state line, Ovid is an emissary from the outside world. Infinitely worthier crush material than the guy from the aborted mountain rendezvous, this scientist hero is also utterly unlike Dellarobia’s husband, Cub, a man as callow and overshadowed by his parents as his name suggests. Setting up camp behind their little house, Ovid assembles a research operation at the roost site and in a barn on the property. For Dellarobia and her inquisitive 5-year-old son, the tenderly drawn Preston, this intellectual activity is like oxygen to the brain. It is an awakening.
These are the novel’s twin strands of tension: Will the butterflies, in their precarious perch, survive to continue the species? Will Dellarobia locate the will and the means to wrest herself and her children into a habitat where they can thrive? In another novel, Preston and his toddler sister, Cordelia, might lend a sense of hope, as the next generation tends to do. In “Flight Behavior,” they are a trigger for anxiety about the earth they will inherit.
There are other tensions, too: religion vs. science, education vs. ignorance, husband vs. wife, affluent vs. impoverished, urban vs. rural, red state vs. blue. Kingsolver, who chronicled her life on a southern Appalachian farm in the 2007 nonfiction book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” sometimes strains too hard, forcing plot developments and exposition, or connecting dots when the outline is more than clear. But she never lets the self-righteous off easy. In one of the novel’s most delicious takedowns, Dellarobia explains to a carpetbagging eco-activist why his sustainability pledge, larded with advice on how to save the planet by flying less and investing responsibly, does not apply to people like her, who have no money to begin with.
Kingsolver’s publisher has marketed “Flight Behavior” as her “most accessible” book, one that “explores the complexities that lead us to believe in our chosen truths.” One could easily read that first bit as insulting and the second as a cynical equivocation in the interest of sales, as if scientific facts such as climate change were truths that one can legitimately take or leave. The novel itself skewers that attitude.
“We are at the top of Niagara Falls . . . in a canoe,” Ovid says. “We got here by drifting, but we cannot turn around for a lazy paddle back when you finally stop pissing around. We have arrived at the point of an audible roar. Does it strike you as a good time to debate the existence of the falls?”
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.