REVIEW: Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver

A young woman in the Appalachian hills of the rural South finds herself pregnant far too young and marries her high school sweetheart, only to lose the child. Years later, living on the farm owned by her in-laws and now the mother of two children, she walks up a mountain on that land to a rendezvous with adultery.

The hike is taxing—she struggles without her glasses (left behind out of vanity) and with her incessant craving for a cigarette—but before she meets her would-be young lover, she encounters what appears to be the entire valley below her in flames. Except there is no fire, only a billow of orange spread out beneath her.

Is this a vision from God? Or a human-made disruption of nature? Of both?

Following The Lacuna (2009), a novelization of the relationship between artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, Barbara Kingsolver explores the life of Dellarobia Turnbow in Flight Behavior (2012), as Kingsolver explains:

I had been wanting to write about climate change for some years. One morning I imagined millions of butterflies settling in the treetops – a drastically altered natural phenomenon that people would not understand as dangerous, one that looks really beautiful but is in fact dreadful. I don’t know how that vision came into my head as that is not how this business usually works. Most every book I bring into the world is like birthing a baby, it’s a lot of effort! So when it did, I thought: oh, this is a perfect starting point.

Kingsolver’s critical and popular reputations rest, still, on her tour-de-force The Poisonwood Bible (although Kingsolver praises The Lacuna as her most enduring), but she has published to date an impressive collection of novels, wonderful collections of essays, a collection of short stories, and a powerful bi-lingual collection of poems, Another America. Throughout Kingsolver’s writing, her most compelling gift is her attention to the craft of writing as it intersects with her politics. Barbara Kingsolver has a political agenda, but her messages remain beautifully housed in her gifts as a novelist, essayist, and poet.

As a Kingsolver fan, Flight Behavior transported me back to Prodigal Summer, my favorite Kingsolver novel, and Animal Dreams. In this newest narrative, the characters are diverse and compelling; Kingsolver is never condescending or unkind when she creates characters with competing world views and backgrounds—even when the characters stand outside Kingsolver’s own commitments.

Flight Behavior creates several complimentary tensions that rise out of what would seem to most readers a premise that is anything except compelling—the appearance of butterflies on a Tennessee farm. What drives the novel, however is Dellarobia and her own external and internal tensions as a young mother and wife:

But being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself….

The ones that lived through winter lasted longer, a few months, by going into something like hibernation. “Diapause,” he called it, a pause in the normal schedule of growing up, mating, and reproducing. Somewhere in midlife, the cold or darkness of winter put them all on hold, shutting down their sex drive until further notice.

Like life in an uninsulated house, she thought. Maybe like marriage in general. (pp. 59-145)

As an occasional Kingsolver scholar, I have examined and recommended her work for the classroom. And here is where I’d like to focus, emphasizing, of course, that I highly recommend Flight Behavior to anyone who has enjoyed Kingsolver before as well as readers of fiction who are drawn to rich narratives, engaging characters, and beautiful craft with language. Kingsolver delivers.

As well, Flight Behavior offers readers, teachers, and students a sort of double duty as a work of a novelist as a public intellectual and a narrative that forces readers and students to consider the role of scholars and academics as they interact with the public about large social issues.

As Kingsolver has explained, this novel is at its core about climate change, but Kingsolver also notes:

Motherhood is so sentimentalised and romanticised in our culture. It’s practically against the law to say there are moments in the day when you hate your children. Everyone actually has those moments. So to create this mother, who loves her children, of course, but is just so fed up of living in a house with people who roll plastic trucks on the floor, was a writing challenge.

In other words, although Kingsolver has a clear agenda, a political point to make about climate change, she also respects her artform, readers, and the characters she has created enough to avoid allowing this novel to slip into mere preaching or to be tarnished by simplistic representations.

Flight Behavior personifies the often reductionistic and misleading climate change debate that occurs in the U.S. over talk radio and among talking heads on TV.

Ironically, in Kingsolver’s imagined world she captures the all-too-real world of climate change as it intersects with the lives and jobs of typical people, people bound to the land, people bound to their faith, people bound to pasts they regret but cannot change or escape.

Flight Behavior soars when Kingsolver invites the reader to witness the intersections of scholars with people without much formal learning, of different races and cultures, of believers and non-believers, of privilege and poverty (importantly, I believe, the working poor).

As a Southerner and educator, I was nervous about how Kingsolver would portray Southerners, and I was very concerned in one scene when Dellarobia details her experience in high school with math and science, as well as her characterization of how schools continue to fail students.

In that context of my own sensitivities, I can anticipate how scientists and climate change deniers may read the novel. And this is where I have my highest recommendation: Kingsolver treads on thin ice often in this novel and masterfully makes her way to the other side of the pond without falling through.

I don’t expect any artist to be perfect, especially when artists venture into producing art with ernest political messages. In fact, I still cringe when I share with students Kingsolver’s essay rejecting TV—a topic about which I disagree strongly with her.

Flight Behavior may stumble (although I am hard-pressed to say so), but it definitely maintains it legs from the wonderful opening scene to the series of surprises and inevitable outcomes that tie together a beautifully weaved story that will not disappoint a wide range of readers who may choose this work for different reasons and with different world views.

Ultimately, there is no dichotomy between Kingsolver the scientist (she has degrees in biology) and Kingsolver the novelist—just as there is no dichotomy between science and faith in the novel.

In the end, then, the novel itself is both embodiment and testament to the message Kingsolver makes clear: We are all one.