"Flight Behavior"

January 15, 2013

Book Shelf


Flight Behavior

By Barbara Kingsolver
HarperCollins, $28.99


Remember Michael Crichton’s 2005 techno-thriller novel State of Fear, which featured eco-terrorists creating artificial disasters to convince people that climate change is real? Flight Behavior, the eighth novel by award-winning writer Barbara Kingsolver, is an antidote — a vivid, but non-sensational story about climate change. There’s a healthy dose of science, but ultimately the book is about faith and what people choose to believe.

Kingsolver frames the story differently from most other novelists who have written about climate change. Flight Behavior is set in the present, not in a post-apocalyptic future, and climate shifts are not manifested by thousand-year storms or collapsing icebergs.

The book is the story of Dellarobia Turnbow, a young wife and mother in rural Tennessee who is bored and stifled caring for two small children on her family farm. Dellarobia decides to have an affair. But when she walks up into the woods behind her house for a rendezvous, she sees what appears to be a miracle: a valley glowing orange, seemingly dipped in flames, looking “like the inside of joy.”

As it turns out, the vision is masses of monarch butterflies that have shifted from their usual migration path. Locals see their arrival as a religious miracle (and, maybe, a warning against plans to clear-cut the hills). Then Ovid Byron, an entomologist who has studied the monarchs for years, arrives with a different explanation: the butterflies are wintering in Tennessee instead of their usual zone in Mexico because climate change is altering their range.

Byron sets up a makeshift lab on Dellarobia’s farm. Curious about how such a beautiful event could be a bad sign, Dellarobia (who had planned to go to college before getting pregnant at 17) starts working for the researcher and his graduate students. Kingsolver uses these scenes to show the slow, detailed process of scientists at work — marking transects on the ground and counting insects in each square, examining butterfly wings under a microscope to count parasites, and so on.

As Dellarobia numbers and weighs samples, readers see how researchers pose theories and look for evidence. They also see science’s limits. Parasites may be sapping the butterflies’ strength, and warming temperatures may be making infestations worse, but Ovid Byron refuses to jump to conclusions. “All we can do is measure and count. That is the task of science,” he tells Dellarobia.

Many themes in Flight Behavior will be familiar to environmental journalists. Scientists do care about the big picture, and they get frustrated when the public doesn’t take climate change seriously and reporters over-simplify things. When Dellarobia pushes Ovid Byron to talk to a local TV reporter who asks whether global warming is real, he blows up at her and the interview becomes a YouTube sensation.

But Kingsolver, who lives in Appalachia, also shows why climate change is a low priority for many Americans.

As Dellarobia learns more about the butterflies and how their detour may be connected to other climate shifts, her world view widens, and she starts to question many of the assumptions that her life is built on. It’s an unsettling process: Dellarobia feels herself “flung away from complacency as if from a car crash.” It would be easy to turn her into a born-again climate change activist, but Kingsolver sets Dellarobia on a more believable flight path, with parallels between her life and that of the butterflies.

Flight Behavior is satisfying to read because the climate message doesn’t overwhelm the storytelling. Kingsolver’s characters have real dimensions, and Dellarobia’s journey is as compelling as that of the monarchs’. This book sets the bar for climate change in fiction.

Jennifer Weeks is a Boston-based freelancer and a member of SEJ’s Board of Directors.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2012-13. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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