Flight Behavior

  • Barbara Kingsolver
  • HarperCollins
  • 448 pp.

In this novel, overwintering Monarch butterflies settle in the Appalachian woods. When a young mother discovers the butterfly forest, she and other community members ponder the meaning and causes of this new phenomenon, arriving at different conclusions.

Reviewed by Roberta Rubenstein

The subject of global warming rarely makes its appearance in the world of mainstream fiction. It is to Barbara Kingsolver’s credit that in Flight Behavior, her eighth novel and 14th book, climate change serves as the precipitating factor in an absorbing story that blends science, religion, media exploitation of newsworthy events and the human effects of an unprecedented natural phenomenon. The circumstance upon which Flight Behavior pivots is an actual event. In 2010, extreme rainfall in the mountains near Angangueo, Michoacán, Mexico — better known as the gateway to the overwintering site of North America’s major population of Monarch butterflies — resulted in “mudslides and catastrophic flooding” that led to the deaths of numerous people and partial destruction of the butterflies’ habitat. From that catastrophe Kingsolver, a biologist by training, extrapolates a series of imaginary but plausible consequences.

A different kind of “flight behavior” sets the story in motion. One autumn morning, the restless protagonist, 27-year-old Dellarobbia Turnbow, runs headlong into the forest near her home, on the verge of throwing her life away for an impulsive romantic assignation. She is stopped in her tracks by an astonishing sight that not only interrupts her dash toward ruin but eventually alters her life: trees transformed by what appear to be flames or manifestations of a bizarre disease. To make sense of the dramatic sight, Dellarobbia returns to the woods, bringing with her first her husband and his parents and later her curious 5-year-old son. She discovers that what had seemed a wondrous vision has an entirely natural, though still wondrous, explanation: “It was a whole butterfly forest, magically draped with dark, pendulous clusters masquerading as witchy tresses or dead foliage.” Rather than returning to their winter home, the masses of “King Billies,” more typically known as Monarch butterflies, have settled in the southern Appalachian woods near where Dellarobbia lives with her husband and two young children on her in-laws’ sheep farm. Because she cannot reveal the incriminating reason for her initial flight to the woods, her family and, later,  the community concludes that Dellarobbia miraculously foresaw — rather than literally witnessed — the butterfly visitation. One newspaper dubs her “Our Lady of the Butterflies.”

Kingsolver is more interested in tracing the human effects of the butterfly visitation than in examining the multiple effects of climate change; indeed, there are none of the latter apart from the exceptional appearance of the Monarchs. Dellarobbia’s discovery leads to divisions in her community and even within her own family as people draw different conclusions about an occurrence that is, to them, inexplicable. Even while regarding the throng of butterflies as a spiritual sign or a miracle that may herald the “End of Days” rather than a natural phenomenon with a scientific explanation, they disagree over whether it signifies something wonderful or terrible. The child of a local immigrant family from Mexico explains that in their tradition Monarchs are regarded as the souls of dead children. More prosaically, Dellarobbia’s father-in-law finds the insects a threat to the logging contract that he has nearly secured for his now-colonized woodlands. Sightseers and news reporters invade the Turnbows’ property, disrupting family life and privacy. An entomologist, Dr. Ovid Byron, arrives, hoping to identify the conditions that led “a significant proportion of the entire North American monarch butterfly population” to roost in this particular swath of Appalachian forest. Dellarobbia, becoming one of Ovid’s research assistants, learns to count butterflies, grasp the distinction between “correlation” and “cause,” and analyze fat reserves, parasite load, and diapause in the winged creatures.

In addition to her attention to scientific details, Kingsolver is reliably skillful at depicting the knottier details of domestic relationships, tracing her characters’ quirks with sympathy and genial amusement. Dellarobbia, frazzled mother of two children with “a combined age of six,” is frequently distracted by the needs of her offspring. Her engaging 5-year-old son — a budding scientist enthralled by the butterflies — has “the personality of a border collie,” coming obediently when called. Her demanding toddler is more difficult to manage, whether smearing food into designs on her high chair tray or parading noisy toys through adult conversations. At one point, Dellarobbia asks her daughter to stop what she’s doing so that the adults can “hear ourselves think”; distracted readers may find their own patience tested here and elsewhere when the domestic details seem excessive.

Yet Kingsolver is spot-on in her attention not only to the unprecedented natural (or unnatural) biological event taking place in the forest but to a young mother’s struggle for dignity despite her poverty and lack of higher education. As Dellarobbia observes, “people automatically estimate a mom’s IQ at around her children’s ages, maybe dividing by the number of kids, rounding up to the nearest pajama size.” She and her friends seek out thrift stores for basic necessities; her earnest but immature husband is addicted to “ADHD TV.” A visitor to their Appalachian backwater who proselytizes for reductions in the carbon footprint urges Dellarobbia to turn off her computer when it’s not in use, failing to grasp that such energy-saving strategies are pointless for someone who doesn’t own a computer.

Like the “butterfly effect,” which suggests that the flapping of a single butterfly’s wings may influence atmospheric events halfway around the world, the Monarch colony in the Appalachian woods produces numerous ripple effects, including several in addition to those already described. Dellarobbia Turnbow, having once shared the certainty embraced by the faithful in her community, that “God moves in mysterious ways,” comes to the more nuanced view that “everything else is in motion while God does not move at all.” Late in the story, observers fret that the displaced butterflies may not survive the harsher conditions of their adopted overwintering site. I won’t reveal the outcome of their concern or of other developments that directly affect Dellarobbia. Suffice it to say that the novel keeps readers wondering until the narrative reaches its satisfying resolution. Flight Behavior may not be Kingsolver’s best — I reserve that position for The Poisonwood Bible — but it is an absorbing read, positioned at the cusp of contemporary concerns about environmental change and its impact on the human domain.

Roberta Rubenstein, Professor of Literature at American University in Washington D.C., is the author of Home Matters: Longing and Belonging, Nostalgia and Mourning in Women’s Fiction (Palgrave, 2001), which includes a chapter on Kingsolver’s fiction. She has published three other scholarly studies as well as more than 30 articles and book chapters on modern and contemporary women writers, including Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Margaret Drabble, and others.

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