Barbara Kingsolver’s magnificent novel FLIGHT BEHAVIOR beautifully combines science and story, addressing climate change through the eyes of a woman whose small-town world is broken wide open by a bizarre act of nature.
Dellarobia Turnbow was married at seventeen because of a pregnancy in which she lost the baby. A decade later she is still married, tied to her two young children and her husband’s family farm. She escapes emotionally through wild crushes on various men—and one day, planning to go through with an affair, she heads into the mountains for the rendezvous, only to find a “lake of fire” awaiting her. The sight of it, blurred because she left her glasses behind, brings her back to reality, and she returns home, determined to accept her life as it is.
So when she learns of her in-laws’ plans to log the forest from which she’s just returned, she tells her husband, “They can’t log that mountain.” Yet when pressed for a reason, she can say only, “The world can surprise you. . . . It could be something special up there.”
That “something special” turns out to be a vast population of monarch butterflies, whose arrival, to the locals, signifies a miracle of God; to the scientific community, it’s a sign of ecological disaster.
Soon Dellarobia’s Southern Appalachian town is filled with visitors—scientists and activists, the media and the curious. Dellarobia, who has been living restlessly in a home built by her in-laws while she raises the kids and her husband works the farm, becomes drawn into the wider world of the monarchs and the global implications for their sudden and unexplained arrival in her town.
While Dellarobia, smart and intellectually curious despite a limited education, is disturbed by the fate of the butterflies and what their detour means for the ecosystem. To most of the people in her town, “weather is the Lord’s business,” and denial reigns, as does the need for survival—the promise of money “when there’s trees standing that could be trees laying down,” as Dellarobia’s father-in-law says.
Dellarobia is the first among them to realize that what is happening is bigger than all of them: “Man against Nature. Of all the possible conflicts, that was the one that was hopeless. Even a slim education had taught her this much: Man loses.”
Yet paying attention to climate change is a luxury for the local population, as Dellarobia herself sees when an environmental activist reads from a pledge to lower one’s carbon footprint. Among the items on the list are bringing Tupperware to restaurants for leftovers (“I’ve not eaten in a restaurant in over two years,” Dellarobia says) and carrying a bottle of tap water instead of buying bottled water (“Our well water is good. We wouldn’t pay for store-bought.”). Dellarobia feels keenly the differences between her own life and that of the researchers.
While she recognizes that the butterflies’ presence is environmentally tragic, she also knows that what’s happening is presenting her with an opportunity, not only for herself but for her bright young son and her baby daughter.
As winter looms and the study of butterflies on the mountain continues, Dellarobia becomes more involved in the research, harboring feelings for the lead scientist while still seeing her own family and her own future through wide-open eyes. With both page-turning tension and great empathy, Kingsolver portrays the implications of a changing planet and the reverberations of personal change upon an entire family, creating an unforgettable story.
Midge Raymond is the author of the short-story collection FORGETTING ENGLISH, which received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her novel MY LAST CONTINENT came out in June 2016.