A species’ survival and a housewife’s future hinge upon the ‘Flight Behavior’ of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest outing

June 18, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 18, 2013

Dellarobia Turnbow is a woman with a kindergartner, a toddler and a problem: She feels trapped and bored by her marriage. What she doesn’t realize at the opening of Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel, is that her life is about to undergo an amazing transformation.

The change is prompted by the migration of monarch butterflies to the Tennessee mountaintop owned by her husband’s family. The unexpected winter visitors attract the attention of one Ovid Byron, lepidopterist extraordinaire, and trigger all sorts of upheaval in the Turnbow clan.

Kingsolver, a former scientist, is a tremendously gifted writer with twin specialties: The American makes both complex biological systems and rural American culture seem equally understandable to outsiders. Both subjects receive prominent play in Flight Behavior, which takes place during one winter outside the fictitious village of Feathertown.

This book makes a fascinating companion to Kingsolver’s 2000 outing, Prodigal Summer, which was set in the Virginia mountains in, obviously, a much warmer season. But whereas the earlier book was told from the perspective of three different characters, Flight Behavior never strays out of Dellarobbia’s head.

There are a number of subtle but real tensions underlying the narrative. One is whether the millions of butterflies on the Turnbows’ mountain can endure despite wintering in a place much colder than their typical roost. Another is whether the Turnbows and their neighbors will proceed with their plan to clear-cut the forest where they insects have alighted. A third is whether Dellarobia will hold her family together as Byron challenges her both intellectually and emotionally.

The plight of the monarchs, and their arriving in Tennessee in the first place, is explained by Kingsolver as a consequence of global warming. The author makes a powerful argument that we must pay attention to this issue now; this may be the first novel of climate change, although it’s about more than just that. Alas, I suspect that not only won’t most of those who disbelieve global warming fail to read the book, the vast majority of those who do will remain unmoved. Many people are stubbornly resistant to science.

As for Dellarobia, she may be poorly educated, but she is nobody’s fool, as this conversation between Dellarobia and the scientist demonstrates.

“I hate to say it, but people are not keen on a person like me coming up here to work with a person like you. Pete sure wasn’t, at first. He got over it. But not everybody does.” She’d finally had a look at the gossip site Dovey mentioned, and it scalded her. By many accounts Dr. Byron was a foreign meddler in local affairs. By some, Dellarobia was carrying his child.

“Was there some difficulty with Pete?”

“Pete’s great. Bonnie and Mako, they all were. For some reason you all decided to let me in. But trust me, if you’d first run into me as your waitress down at the diner, you would not have included me in the conversation about your roosting populations and your overwintering zones. People shut out the other side. It cuts both ways.”

She could imagine herself in an apron bringing them coffee at one of the grease-embalmed booths at the Feathertown Diner, rest in peace. Ovid actually might have asked her opinion, even there. I never learn anything from listening to myself, he’d said that first night. The moment for her to shut up would be right now.

“Humans are hardwired for social community,” he said. “There’s no question, we evolved with it. Reading the cues and staying inside the group, these are number-one survival skills in our species. But I like to think academics are the referees. That we can talk to every side.”

“Could, maybe. But you’re not. You’re always telling me you’re not even supposed to care, you just measure and count.” Okay, she thought. Now shutting up.

“It’s a point,” he said. “If we tangle too much in the public debate, our peers will criticize our language as imprecise, or too certain. Too theatrical. Even simple words like ‘theory’ and ‘proof’ have different meanings outside of science. Having a popular audience can get us pegged as second-rank scholars.”

Dellarobia was surprised to hear it. If people behaved sensibly anywhere, surely it would be in an institute of higher learning. Although “second-rank scholar” was not an exact equivalent to “whoring with the enemy.”

Kingsolver is sensible not to rush her protagonist’s personal evolution, but the reader must be patient as she slowly metamorphoses from repressed housewife to — well, to something and someone very different. The novel culminates with some lovely, wrenching moments.

I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as I did Prodigal Summer, even though I found it less didactic than the earlier work. But Flight Behavior is a fascinating and beautifully written book, and any serious reader would do well to undertake the journey.


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