Fly Away Home

In Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, a warming climate inspires an East Tennessee showdown

by Sean Kinch

Flight Behavior
By Barbara Kingsolver
HarperCollins
448 pages
$28.99

In the opening of Kingsolver’s new novel, Flight Behavior, a young, unhappily married woman hikes up a mountain on her in-laws’ property in East Tennessee for a tryst with a younger man. Dellarobia Turnbow knows that this act could end her marriage to Cub and irrevocably alter her life with two young children, but she appears ready to forge ahead. Before she meets the rendezvous point, however, she encounters a vision of surpassing beauty: a familiar valley suddenly ablaze with an otherworldly color, a lake of golden fire. Shaken, Dellarobia turns around and heads back down the mountain, burning for a chance to share her revelation.

She returns to discover her in-laws, Bear and Hester, finalizing a deal with a logging company to clear-cut the very groves where she has had her vision. Dellarobia argues that they should walk the land one more time before selling off the rights to the forest. They agree and make a joint outing to witness her vision firsthand. There, they too are struck by the ocean of gold that covers the woodland. On closer inspection, they realize that Dellarobia’s “ethereal” vision of “glowing trees” is a natural, if wholly unexpected, phenomenon: monarch butterflies have abandoned their normal migration to the mountains of northern Mexico and chosen the Turnbows’ Tennessee hills for their winter nesting grounds.

When word of the monarchs’ appearance begins to spread around the (fictional) town of Feathertown, tourists and scientists begin making pilgrimages to witness the miraculous display. One biologist, a butterfly specialist with the romantic name of Ovid Byron, requests permission to use Dellarobia’s back yard as a base for studying the butterflies during their winter stopover. A mutual distrust soon grows between Byron’s team of scientists, who are convinced that climate change is the root cause of the monarchs’ aberrant migration, and the people of Feathertown, who believe, to varying degrees of literalness, that the butterflies are God’s blessing on their town. Dellarobia’s husband sums up the locals’ attitude toward global warming: “Weather is the Lord’s business.”

After the novel’s dramatic opening, readers may feel misled when Kingsolver’s narrative settles into domestic squabbles and pragmatic debates. Will Dellarobia, recently on the brink of marital dissolution, act on her attraction to Ovid Byron? Will Bear go through with his deal to clear off the monarchs’ nesting trees? Can the butterflies themselves survive the freezes sure to come with the East Tennessee winter?

Before these issues become tedious, though, Kingsolver delivers on the promise of action. When a local news team interviews Dellarobia about the butterfly invasion, she drifts into a description of her disappointments as the mother of two tiresome kids and the spouse of a hopelessly mundane man. Unaware that everything she says on camera is fair game for broadcast, she reveals that when she first saw the butterflies she was “running away” from her life: “I couldn’t live it anymore. I wanted out. So I came up here by myself, ready to throw everything away. And I saw this. This stopped me.”

That evening Dellarobia scarcely has time to put her children to bed before her phone starts ringing. CNN has picked up the story, reporting that because the butterflies saved her life, she has become the “sole voice of reason” against the plan to log the mountain. Humiliated by the attention and contrite for having denigrated her husband and in-laws, Dellarobia tries to stay out of the media blitz. But when someone manipulates a still image from the TV interview to make her look like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, “standing on the open wings of a huge monarch,” she gets her fifteen minutes of discomforting fame.

Readers of Kingsolver’s novels may come for the drama, but there’s plenty of humor, too. Dellarobia’s story is spiced with a lively dialogue—especially when she speaks with her irreverent friend Dovey—that adds to the book’s page-turning appeal. Dellarobia notes that her husband’s jean size, 38-36, “sounded more like the shape of a TV screen than a man.” As for her own slim build, Dellarobia believes that “fitting into a size zero did not count for much of an accomplishment. It sounded like nonexistence. She sometimes wondered if subconsciously she’d gone for Cub just for the increase in marital volume.”

The visitation of the butterflies gives Dellarobia a chance to expand her world view. In her community, science is viewed as a threat to religion: as the arrival of the monarchs makes clear, however, even the barest of ecological observations can now be as frightening as Old Testament destruction stories. The deviation in the monarchs’ migration is just one effect of climate change, of course. “We are seeing a bizarre alteration of a previously stable pattern,” Byron says. “A continental ecosystem breaking down.”

In other scenes, Byron speaks in more apocalyptic terms about the terrors facing the planet. Given that the ratio of carbon in our atmosphere is sufficiently high to disrupt “the thermal stability of the planet,” Byron explains, the earth is experiencing an explosion of ecological disasters: “Hurricanes reaching a hundred miles inland, wind speeds we’ve never seen. Deserts on fire. In New Mexico we are seeing the inferno. Texas is worse. Australia is unimaginably worse—a lot of the continent is in permanent drought. Farms abandoned forever.” After Hurricane Sandy, these words ring painfully prophetic.

Kingsolver’s epic 1998 novel, The Poisonwood Bible, offers a profound inquiry into the nature of faith and the meaning of family. At its core, Flight Behavior asks another fundamental question, one that applies equally well to the plight of the monarchs, Dellarobia’s personal crisis, and the fate of the planet: “Where will they go from here?” Ovid Byron posits that the butterflies will be forced to encounter “a whole new earth,” which will be “different from the one that has always supported them. In the manner to which we have all grown accustomed.”

After the media attention has died down and Dellarobia has settled into her employment on Byron’s research team, she again contemplates escaping her Turnbow entrapment, a home “where she’d never belonged in the first place.” The beauty of Flight Behavior lies in the merging of Dellarobia’s dilemma with the fate of the butterflies. Dellarobia feels personally connected to the monarchs; with her striking red hair and petite frame, she looks like one, too. Will she manage to fly away, as the scientists hope the butterflies do, or will she cling to her family’s roots? Kingsolver leaves both questions unresolved until the end of this moving and thought-provoking book.

Published Monday, 19 November 2012