A tiny woman with flame-colored hair, she is racing up the mountainside to toss her life away — hustling up the High Road in sexy, ill-fitting secondhand boots, dogged by the urge for a cigarette, lured forward by the thrill of a tryst.
Smart but scandalously undereducated, poor, beautiful, and bored beyond endurance, she is crushing hard on the amber-eyed charmer she’s on her way to meet. As Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “Flight Behavior” begins, our heroine, one Dellarobia Turnbow, is 28 and fleeing an existence that has become untenable, desperately trading the familiar safety of her good-hearted, dull-witted husband and their two small children for she’s not sure what.
En route, at an overlook, she’s seized by the awareness that something is horribly, frighteningly awry. “Nearly all the forest she could see from here, from valley to ridge, looked altered and pale, the beige of dead leaves. These were evergreen trees, they should be dark, and that wasn’t foliage. There was movement in it. The branches seemed to writhe.” She can’t quite tell what she’s looking at — partly because, out of vanity, she’s left her glasses at home. What she perceives, when the sun emerges and the light shifts, is something of a Technicolor miracle: “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,” yet there is no roar of fire, no heat.
For Dellarobia, who is not religious, who knows that God has better things to do than micromanage her affairs, it is nonetheless a Moses-on-the-mountain, road-to-Damascus moment, and it tells her, albeit in less than biblical detail, how she must live. Abandoning her exodus, she returns to her in-laws’ hardscrabble sheep farm, reclaiming her place there but determined now to save her children and herself, to “steer her family toward something better than this.”
The sight that seemed so otherworldly turns out to be very much of this realm, portending not divine benevolence but cataclysmic peril. Tiny creatures with flame-colored wings are encrusting the Turnbow family trees: millions of monarch butterflies, alighting to spend the winter in southern Appalachia, far from their usual Mexican migration spot. Climate change has chased them north, possibly too far. If the mercury drops into the mid-20s, it could spell the demise of the species.
Our stewardship of this warming, melting planet, with its rising seas and alarming new weather extremes, is the primary concern of Kingsolver’s tale. Encoded from the first sentence with the language of Christianity, it’s set in a rural, deep red pocket of the country, where God is presumed to work in mysterious ways and climate change is perceived as an elitist lie.
In Feathertown, Tenn., the autumn has brought rains that will not stop. The neighbors’ orchard is rotting, tree roots slip their moorings in waterlogged soil, and the mountainside forest, thick with winged refugees, is in danger of being clear-cut and leaving mudslides behind. For Kingsolver, the tree is not a symbol of life but a herald of death. The book’s question is whether we can steer the earth toward something better than this. Or have we made a mess beyond repair?
In the real world, we’ve just seen a superstorm wreak havoc on a chunk of the Northeast and, in the last days of the presidential campaign, coax an Obama endorsement from Michael Bloomberg, mayor of a ravaged New York City, who cited the urgent need for politicians to confront climate change. “Flight Behavior,” then, is very much of the moment, and these dangers are not cozy to consider. What’s striking is that the high-stakes fictional world Kingsolver creates is one where we, as readers, want to linger.
Much of that appeal has to do with the humor she laces through the book, as when Dellarobia earnestly explains the local etiquette: “Some of the kids living down this road might steal your lawn mower out of your garage to buy Oxycontin, but they’d leave a note, you know? ‘Thank you ma’am. I apologize. Please hold me in your prayers.’ ”
Even more has to do with Kingsolver’s characters. She writes, in an author’s note, that “virtually all the first and last names that appear in this novel (remixed)” come from her own family history, so bear with her as she insists on dubbing her leading man Ovid Byron. He is a lovely man, handsome and kind, a Harvard-educated entomologist who arrives in Dellarobia’s front yard one morning, asking to see the butterflies. The appearance of the monarchs, and the church-fostered belief that Dellarobia foresaw them in a vision, have made a local celebrity of her. From a newspaper story, word spread.Continued...