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.

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What We Know Now (and How It Doesn’t Matter)

Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos (2006) explores the evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) debate that represents the newest attack on teaching evolution in U.S. public schools. The documentary is engaging, enlightening, and nearly too fair considering Olson admits upfront that he stands with scientists who support evolution as credible science and reject ID as something outside the realm of science.

Olson’s film, however, offers a powerful message that rises above the evolution debate. Particularly in the scenes depicting scientists discussing (during a poker game) why evolution remains a target of political and public interests, the documentary shows that evidence-based expertise often fails against clear and compelling messages (such as “teach the controversy”)—even when those clear and compelling messages are inaccurate.

In other words, ID advocacy has often won in the courts of political and public opinion despite having no credibility within the discipline it claims to inform—evolutionary biology.

With that sobering reality in mind, please identify what XYZ represents in the following statement about “What We Know Now”:

Is there a bottom line to all of this? If there is one, it would appear to be this: Despite media coverage, which has been exceedingly selective and misrepresentative, and despite the anecdotal meanderings of politicians, community members, educators, board members, parents, and students, XYZ have not been effective in achieving the outcomes they were assumed to aid….

This analysis is addressing school uniform policies, conducted by sociologist David L. Brunsma who examined evidence on school uniform effectiveness (did school uniform policies achieve stated goals of those policies) “from a variety of data gathered during eight years of rigorous research into this issue.”

This comprehensive analysis of research from Brunsma replicates the message in Flock of Dodos—political, public, and media messaging continues to trump evidence in the education reform debate. Making that reality more troubling is that a central element of No Child Left Behind was a call to usher in an era of scientifically based education research. As Sasha Zucker notes in a 2004 policy report for Pearson, “A significant aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the use of the phrase ‘scientifically based research’ well over 100 times throughout the text of the law.”

Brunsma’s conclusion about school uniform policies, I regret to note, is not an outlier in education reform but a typical representation of education reform policy. Let’s consider what we know now about the major education reform agendas currently impacting out schools:

Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, education reform continues a failed tradition of honoring messaging over evidence. Neither the claims made about educational failures, nor the solutions for education reform policy today are supported by large bodies of compelling research.

As the fate of NCLB continues to be debated, the evidence shows not only that NCLB has failed its stated goals, but also that politicians, the media, and the public have failed to embrace the one element of the legislation that held the most promise—scientifically based research—suggesting that dodos may in fact not be extinct.

* Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.; Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958; See page 4 for 2012 SAT data: http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/TotalGroup-2012.pdf

Recommended: Educational Documentaries

I teach a May Experience course, The Reel World: The Depiction of Schools on Film. A colleague of mine in the education department and I designed the course before Waiting for “Superman,” but the course is intended as a way to examine how political and public discourse shapes perceptions about public schools as well as policy. The course was revised to include Poverty Studies credit so many of the films explore how education intersects class and race.

This May X, I added the choice of reading either Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, by Kathleen Nolan, or Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, by Sarah Carr.

The focus of the discussion, however, remains on the eight documentaries below with some annotations about what aspects of education each film highlights. I do recommend all of these films, although each has some limitations as most documentaries do.

Recommended Documentaries on Education:

Corridor of Shame

This documentary focuses on a court case in South Carolina initiated by high-poverty school districts surrounding primarily the I-95 corridor of the state, paralleling the east coast and stretching from the NE to the SE region. The documentary suffers from melodramatic production values (music, slow-motion panning of sad children’s faces), but the essential claim of the film is important for confronting the social inequity that is reflected in educational inequity, particularly in the South. Issues included in the film are school funding, community-based schools, access to high-quality educational opportunities and facilities, teacher assignments related to student characteristics, and state education accountability mechanisms. Some related resources (SC school report cards, poverty indices, related blog posts) to the documentary can be found HERE.

Heart of Stone

Ron Stone stands at the center of this film about an urban high school in New Jersey. The film is solid and interesting—while also creating a good deal of tension and presenting a surprise ending. Many important issues are raised, notably the controversial stance of Stone as principal toward gangs and gang leaders attending the high school. This is an ideal companion to Police in the Hallways and it confronts several important issues about education and education reform—urban schools, high-poverty/majority-minority schools, zero tolerance policies, deficit views of minorities and impoverished children, gang presence and violence, leadership styles, police in schools.

Flock of Dodos

The controversy, teaching evolution in public schools, that will not die—although it has evolved, ironically—is explored by this film that is engagingly personal and often humorous. The Intelligent Design (ID) movement is the approach of the moment for creating debates about if and how evolution should be taught in schools. While the filmmaker is upfront with his allegiances to science, the documentary is fair, almost to a fault as it allows the scientists to show why their expertise is often lost in their arrogance. The film successfully helps viewers navigate the definitions of science, evolution, ID, and creationism; it also confronts the roles of religion, ideology, and politics (specifically the power of school boards) in the “teach the controversy” assertions found among ID advocates. An interesting connection to this documentary is the news coverage of a creationist test given to students in a SC private school.

Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later

These documentaries often soar because of the people allowed to speak for themselves. This excellent HBO film opens with Minnijean Brown Trickey returning to Little Rock Central High, and then it never fails to deliver throughout. I would rate this a must-see among the selections in this course. The film confronts Brown v. Board, separate and unequal, schools within schools, the return of segregation (especially in the South), and the lingering tensions between the ideal and reality of racial harmony. Related pieces on the rise of the segregated South and education reform in the New Jim Crow Era are recommended. Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is also an excellent connection.

Hard Times at Douglass High

When Waiting for “Superman” was released and disproportionately praised in the media, I wrote a piece on this documentary to suggest it is far superior and to ask viewers what these administration and teachers at Douglass High were supposed to do. The focus of this film is No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the context of a high-poverty, majority minority urban high school. Some of the most significant moments of the documentary are disturbing scenes of violence in the hallways and one female student recounting a fight with an adult male relative. Teachers struggling with the students, including one TFA recruit, are included, and this is also a strength of the film. The film addresses accountability, administrator/faculty relationships, the roles of teachers (especially young teachers), the influence and struggles of parents, the voices of students, the significance of extracurricular activities, and the limitations of school-only reform and accountability under the weight of poverty and racial inequity.

Clearcut

Who controls the money, controls everything—or at least who controls the money wants to control everything. This documentary examines the clash between a family funding scholarships and the science curriculum in a logging community. This is a powerful pairing with Flock of Dodos since both documentaries dramatize the debate over who should determine the curriculum in public schools serving a free society. Clearcut and Flock of Dodos also highlight the culture war that simmers beneath almost all educational controversies. The issues raised in this documentary can be linked to the influence of entrepreneurs in the current reform movement, such as Bill Gates, and the role of school boards is also a central issue, again as in Flock of Dodos.

Prom Night in Mississippi

Morgan Freeman challenges his childhood hometown to integrate the prom, and he’ll foot the bill; this is the focus of an engaging and powerful documentary on the persistence of segregated proms in the twenty-first century. The voices of students, parents, and administrators drive this film, and the intersection of racism and public education takes center stage through those voices. A potential pairing (non-education related) is the documentary The Loving Story about the 1967 Supreme Court case addressing interracial marriage. The 2013 prom integration in Georgia also is a suitable companion to this film.

Grain of Sand

Neoliberalism driving education reform in Mexico is confronted in this documentary, which provides a strong conclusion to the May experience addressing education. Corporations (Walmart, Coca-Cola, Ford), corrupt unions, and President Fox provide a matrix of influential forces shaping and even dismantling public education in Mexico, paralleling the same neoliberal agenda highlighted under George W. Bush and increased under Obama. A combative and disturbing documentary, Grain of Sand forces viewers to consider the value of the Commons and the dangers of privatization. Like Hard Times at Douglass High, this film suggests that accountability reform based on high-stakes testing poses much greater harm than good for schools and students.

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A companion video worth pairing with any of the above films is Tupac Shakur at 17 discussing education.