Barbara Kingsolver has chosen the urgent and serious issue of climate change as the topic of her novel Flight Behaviour. The author chooses a farm in Feathertown , Tennessee and the Turnbow family as her setting. Dellarobia Turnbow is a young mother, trapped in an unsatisfying marriage and life. On her way up the mountain in her family’s property to have a casual affair with a telephone technician she barely knows, Dellarobia encounters a lake of orange. The spectacular vision before her turns out to be monarch butterflies that have chosen to winter in Tennessee instead of Mexico where their typical migratory pattern would take them. But will they survive the winter here? Are they headed for extinction? The plot is developed by the appearance of an entomologist Ovid Byron and his team who want to study the monarchs. Kingsolver tackles the issue of climate change from several angles in the novel.
There is religion versus science. For the religious in Feathertown, the appearance of the monarchs is a miracle. For the scientific community this is a disaster. Drought, unquenchable fires, marching ants devouring caterpillars, floods, mud slides….all have contributed to the disappearance of the migratory habitat of the beautiful monarchs in Mexico that is why they have arrived in Tennessee. The scientists do not see this as a miracle but rather as an unnatural phenomena.
There is urban versus rural. The educated urbanites take up the cause; camp out in the mountains distributing pamphlets, knitting orange butterflies to attract attention to the issue. But a very interesting conversation between pamphlet distributing urbanite Leighton Atkins and rural Dellarobia sheds new light. Atkins lectures her on what she can do to stem climate change; take Tupperware to restaurants for leftovers, switch off your computer when not using it, fly less, don’t drink water out of plastic bottles. Turns out that the urbanite for all his condescending preaching may be the greater polluter. Dellaboria barely eats out, does not own a computer, has never flown and drinks water out of a well. Poverty rather than knowledge has prevented her from polluting.
There is the media that is more interested in sensationalizing news about the monarchs instead of properly educating the public. Ovid Byron representing the scientific community also does not do a good job of presenting the issue to the public via the media.
As the novel develops, Dellarobia goes from being a caterpillar to a butterfly. She realizes how limited and restrictive her life and experience has been. In Ovid Byron and his team she sees opportunities for learning and growth she did not know existed. At the end of the novel she is flying, hopefully to greener and healthier pastures.
The title of the novel is very clever. The novel begins with Dellarobia in flight behaviour and it ends the same way. I found the novel laugh-out-loud funny e.g. Dovey’s church sightings one of them is “If you want to meet Jesus in person text while driving”. Kingsolver’s prose as always is flawless.
The only complaint I had against the book was that in parts it is slow and drags a bit, otherwise an excellent novel. Kingsolver has handled one of the most contentious issues of our times with great skill and produced a novel that will stay with you long after you have finished it. The message of the book is – climate change is real, if we do not do something about it, not just the monarchs but other species will be lost and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
Geetha`s love of books began when she was a child. She later turned that love into formal education with a Masters in English Literature and then again into a career for a few years, teaching English at Ethiraj and Fergusson Colleges in India. Though her career took her into the computer industry, Geetha has continued to read both individually as well as part of a book club in Newmarket, Canada where she lives.