Flight Behaviour: Barbara Kingsolver

Published by Harper & Collins / Faber & Faber, 2012, 448 pages.

Dellarobia Turnbow is heading up to the cabin owned by her family to meet a lover, trying to break out of the suffocating life she lives. But she never gets there. An amazing sight on an overlook on the other side of the slope stops her dead in her tracks.

“The forest blazed with its own internal flame. … 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. The flames now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it is poked. The sparks spiralled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against grey sky.”

What Dellarobia sees—and it changes her life—are thousands of Monarch butterflies that have migrated to the Appalachian Mountains, where she lives, for the first time in recorded history. But they are not safe in their new refuge—her father-in-law, Bear, wants to sell the trees to loggers to pay off a debt. She manages to persuade her husband, Cub, to take his parents to the forest before they sign anything.

Cub, amazed at the sight and the fact that his wife somehow knew this (she doesn’t tell him of her trip up the mountain), blurts it out in church. The word gets around, and before long, Dellarobia has become a sensation on the internet, journalists are knocking on her door, and visitors are streaming in to see the butterflies. The phenomenon attracts an entomologist, Dr. Ovid Byron, who opens up a new world for Dellarobia by hiring her as an assistant. Through him and his assistants, she learns a lot about the butterflies—and herself.

Flight Behaviour is a warning about climate change and the perils of ignoring it. The butterflies in the Turnbow forest are there because their usual habitat in Mexico has been destroyed by logging, which not only demolished the butterflies’ habitat but caused a landslide, destroying homes and killing people. Barbara Kingsolver is scathing about the media—the journalist, Tina Ultner, who interviews Dellarobia, is just after a story. When Dellarobia wonders why Tina doesn’t interview Ovid, his assistant tells her, “That’s why they talk to you. Because you don’t really know anything. … They just don’t want to talk to a scientist. It would mess with their story.” Better to see the butterflies’ presence as a miracle than a cause for alarm.

But the book is also about people: how they cope with the lives that they have ended up in, the heartbreaks and disappointments, and, in Dellarobia’s case, with the intrusive nature of fame.

This is a beautifully written book. Kingsolver’s characters are always nuanced, and this book is no exception. The ones that stayed with me were the three women: Dellarobia, who couldn’t go to college because she got pregnant and had to get married; Hester, her mother-in-law, cold and distant, living with her own ghosts; and Dovey, Dellarobia’s best friend, strong, funny and independent. 

What I loved about this book was how Kingsolver takes an issue out of the headlines and brings it down to the level of individual lives. Because in the end, it is the individuals that can really make a difference.

Buy from Bookshop.org UK / Bookshop.org USA

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