Flight Behavior: a message about climate change disguised as a drama about people

I had fun reading Flight Behavior, trying to decide which of the several subplots was going to become the main story. There’s a lot going on. The narrative follows Dellarobia Turnbow, an orphan, mother, and housewife, whose possibilities are much bigger than the small rural Tennessee town, stale marriage, and “hand-me-down life” she is living. She deals with annoying neighbors, a weird plague of butterflies, a hands-on introduction to science, attempted adultery, a yawning husband and inscrutable in-laws, the memory of a miscarriage, and the big-time worries that come with a dawning understanding of the perils of climate change. There is a wacky friend, too, and even sheep. It’s got everything.

Climate change is a noteworthy antagonist in the story, but the juiciest conflicts are definitely between the characters. Flight Behavior feels like a book about real, vulnerable people. And although the narrative point of view is limited to Dellarobia, Dellarobia understands how people like her husband and her neighbors think. That is, people like farmers who’ve never had much need to think about things outside their farm work, who were never allowed decent educations, who listen to conservative talk radio, and who honestly cannot believe in the fact of global warming. She relays this point of view vividly to the reader, with a sad sympathy that is striking.

Barbara Kingsolver’s writing style is ever-surprisingly fluid, flowing from subject to subject as Dellarobia daydreams or interprets. There are many standout passages. “She couldn’t see these things at all, stricken forests of killing tides. What she saw was the boy inside a man who was losing everything” (281).  “She could see that his old generosity was still there, but was sometimes being held captive by despair, like a living thing held underwater” (239).  “Men and barns are like a bucket of forks. Neatness is no part of the equation.” Delightful!

One portentous theme is the disconnection that people feel from one another. The disconnection between Dellarobia and Leighton Akins (the guy with the “Sustainability Pledge” pamphlets at the monarch roosting site), for example, is a funny one. As if she needs to pledge to be thrifty! And he has no idea what was so funny about it.

The picketers from the community college, too, don’t know the half of Bear’s motivation for considering a logging contract. They seem to think he’s evil, but really, he’s not hell-bent on butterfly blood. He’s desperate for money, about to lose his house to a long run of bad luck and bad weather.

Dellarobia and Cub’s marriage lacks any meaningful communication at all, and Dellarobia’s relationship with her mother-in-law Hester is like a sustained uncomfortable pose.

Even the perceptive and personable Ovid Byron “would have no inkling of the great slog of effort that tied up people like [Dellarobia] in the day-to-day.”

And finally, there are some people to whom the idea of climate change will be forever inconceivable. But to follow Dellarobia’s example, we should still seek hope, even as the sea levels rise, the weather goes haywire, and the epic extinction begins.

Kingsolver presents a broad and rich array of insights in this book.

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