Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"Flight Behavior" by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behavior is a novel about climate change and class differences, set among rural Appalachia and millions of monarch butterflies. While going to meet a man for a fling, dissatisfied wife and mother Dellarobia discovers the entire North American population of monarchs has descended upon her mountain. What she sees astonishes her and jolts her way of thinking, and after looking at photos online, I can't feel otherwise. Monarchs gather in enormous clumps, like grapes, among trees, and the site is truly spectacular (image below from the Monarch Butterfly Fund).

From there, Dellarobia explores her feelings about the monarchs, her marriage, her children, and her dreams, with those around her. Her father-in-law wants to log the mountain for money. Her mother-in-law never seems to approve of Dellarobia. Her husband, Cub, is kind but slow and timid. Scientist Ovid Bryon, who arrives to study the butterflies, is the first to listen to her and teach her. But Byron is also in a world completely different than her own.

Through the lens of Dellarobia's growth, the book is very much a treatise on the danger of climate change. Its message is important and broken down simply, though occasionally the reductive analogies can come off as patronizing ("You mean nuclear physics is just like buying a tub of lard from Joe Bob's Food Mart? Now, I get it!").

There's also strong element of preaching to the choir as I doubt many climate change deniers will be reading it. However, I did like that Kingsolver takes some time to explain the way in which climate change has absurdly become a Democrats vs. Republicans issue and how something that virtually all scientists agree on is framed in the media as "the debate over climate change."

While I certainly agree with everything Kingsolver argues about the danger we are causing our planet, I found the exploration of class issues more engrossing within the book itself. Where the book could have gone simplistic--the kind, educated professor helping the illiterate downtrodden or the snooty urban elite destroying the poor's pure simplicity--there's instead nuance. For example, Byron becomes angry that the local high school is uninterested in sending student volunteers to learn and study the butterflies. After all, it's a great opportunity to see science in action and build valuable skills. But the school only wants to know if it pays minimum wage--because, truthfully, the students aren't going into science fields and they aren't going to college. A mindless minimum wage job is more useful.

But, at the heart of the novel is Dellarobia, whose quest to find meaning and purpose in her life centers the story. The ending's pretty optimistic, but not outside the realm of possibility.


  1. Dellarobia? Ovid? Cub? Who comes up with these names? ;)

    - Husband

  2. They're obviously symbolic. [begin English teacher voice]

    Ovid Byron--clearly references to poets (this is, thankfully, acknowledged in the novel). Byron represents the educated elite, though his name is also misleading--Byron is not some snooty old white scientist (as might be expected), but a kind, engaged Jamaican scientist.

    Cub stands in contrast to his father, Bear. Cub is meek and timid; though lovable and kindhearted, he does not stand up for himself.

    della Robia is an Italian sculptor (also mentioned in novel), so, like Byron, Dellarobia shares a naming history with the elite. But her name is also the name of a wreath--something common and unexciting. Thus her name shows her straddling of the two worlds--her ambitions and restrictions.


    1. Well fine. Silly me for assuming that names are just names in novels. I still think I win the "no one actually names their kids this way" angle, but I don't think anyone cares. :)

      - Husband

  3. Thanks for the interesting review. I plan on reading this book since it's on the short-list for the Prize Formerly Known as Orange...I'm rather eager, in fact. :)