I’ve never caught the Barbara Kingsolver bug, but I was very encouraged by her last novel, The Lacuna, which I found both well-written and meaningful. Flight Behavior takes right off like a fighter jet with its crackerjack protagonist Dellarobia Turnbow climbing the canyon behind her Appalachian cabin on her way to a tryst that could wreck her whole domestic world, and she don’t care.
Dellarobia (named–accidentally after a renaissance sculptor as well as–on purpose–a type of holiday wreath–the story’s full of these crimes of illiteracy and ignorance) has a husband she married as a pregnant teen and two subsequent kids, a pair of in-laws she despises (along with said husband), and a hand-to-mouth living on said in-laws’ land. She wants out, so the title would seem at first to refer to her. Halfway up the canyon, though, she’s confronted with golden boughs all over the trees and bushes that seem to shimmer with transcendental light. The vision sends her back down the hill possessed by she doesn’t quite know what, but the sexual fervor she had for the young lineman she’d been headed for has transformed.
It’s a heck of a setup, and things move along swimmingly for the first 40 or 50 per cent of the novel. Eventually, though, when it becomes known that the golden lights are clumps of monarch butterflies who have alighted in this holler for completely unknown reasons, things slowly begin to turn. The phenomenon becomes a target for scientists who want to study the insects’ flight behavior, and for evangelists and for, inevitably, journalists. So, what has begun as in intensely personal story of a family in turmoil, on the verge of disintegration, begins to turn into a polemic on global warming.
Dellarobia is smarter than most in her community, but her education was thwarted by the early marriage, and she’s stuck with all these uneducated bumpkins. When the scientists come to town, the combination of her proximity, curiosity, and intelligence lead to liaisons with the university types. This alienates her from the uneducated–including, her family. Before long, we’re divorced as readers from the personal story to the global story, and the novel begins using characters as mouthpieces for the various arguments for and against 1) taking climate change seriously and 2) doing something about it. The Applachianers come in for a good deal of finger-wagging by the author, and the scientists are well-meaning outsiders stymied by the brute anti-scientific forces loose in the universe.
It’s all too bad, I think. Dellarobia and her struggle should have remained in the foreground, climate change in the background, then you’d have had a novel. The Lacuna had its piece to say against Macarthyism and the evils of fascistic government, and I took that message much more seriously because it was embedded in the story rather than the other way around. Thus, in a sense, Dellarobia–a fantastic character in utter turmoil–is wasted by making her more messenger than character.
Reviewers have puzzled over the ending, suggesting some sort of biblical cataclysm. Don’t see it. If you get to the end, tell me what you think. I heard on NPR that there’s a whole new niche genre developing called “climate fiction,” of which Flight Behavior is a prime example. As for me, I’m off to other things.