But in Flight Behavior, Kingsolver doesn’t stop at exploring impact. With typical courage, the author explores how living beings confront seemingly impossible phenomena and struggle to address the universal existential question that presses all species…
What is to be done?
Flight Behavior follows Dellarobia Turnbow, a young mother of two who — en route to an uneasy assignation — discovers a migration of Monarch butterflies that has flown astray and crash landed by the millions in the Appalachian forest above her home.
Kingsolver introduces this environmental calamity with mystery, through the eyes of her bright, quick-witted, poorly educated protagonist so that the reader struggles alongside Dellarobia to understand the powerful apparition that has landed in her familiar forest.
The unhappy young mother’s bewilderment is tinged with irony: Dellarobia left her glasses at home to please the manifestation of her restlessness — a local lineman hunk. As she climbs through the forest, the newly arrived Monarchs appear to her as a lake of fire, unidentifiable, anomalous, possibly a warning against her sinful intent.
The clandestine tryst with the lineman is never consummated but a new love begins for Dellarobia — the discovery of her rapacious curiosity and deep-running wonder for a world beyond her child-father husband, overbearing in-laws, and the demands of survival in a churchy community ravaged by chronic rural poverty.
Ironically, Kingsolver sets the Monarchs demise —an event of sudden and gigantic proportions — in a community long-besieged by soggy, deviant weather that has delivered a near-Biblical saturation to the delicate landscape, ruining crops and making life tougher than ever for its hard-working tenants.
The unprecedented rain also serves to introduce Kingsolver’s exploration of how humans cloak themselves in denial and blind faith in a world where life had been defined by everyday life and the predictable cycle of the seasons.
Denial and lack of understanding play major roles in Flight Behavior. Her characters are not dumb; they’re complex and worthy of high regard. The women are stoic or whipsaw sharp, the men stubborn but often thoughtful and surprisingly vulnerable. But Kingsolver’s butterflies numb their sensibilities and intelligence, despite their deep understanding of the prominent role nature plays in their lives.
So now, when nature goes awry in Dellarobia’s world, Kingsolver serves up folks too busy, too poor, and too religion-bound to recognize the significance of the Monarch's confused arrival. Besides, what are you gonna do? How do you fix a world that has run amuck?
Dellarobia awkwardly spills her jumbled but intelligent reflections for the charming lady, with Kingsolver making sure we see both versions: Dellarobia’s awkward truth versus the media-ized outcome where our journalist personifies Dellarobia as a simple but intuitive native, a sexualized witness to the profundity of the Monarchs, her words yanked from her mouth and twisted into a separate reality.
Science arrives in the form of Ovid Byron, a tall, Jamaican lepidopterist who appears unannounced in Feathertown, makes a preliminary foray into the forest, and returns with a research party and a field station. Ovid’s return brings with it the realization that the aberration in the forest is earth-shaking. Ovid’s exhaustive scientific focus also provides Kingsolver a voice that explains what the Monarch’s distorted flight path means for the planet and with a scientist's mind that gives us a window into the deep, darkness that often comes with knowledge.
Ovid’s exhaustive scientific focus also provides Kingsolver a voice that explains what the Monarch’s distorted flight path means for the planet. For Dellarobia, Ovid reflects the claustrophobic inadequacy of her own life and reveals the excitement of an urgent new world represented by the troubled Monarchs and the exactitude of scientific inquiry. Through Ovid’s carefully moderated response to the Monarch displacement and Kingsolver’s detailed and fascinating description of how a scholar studies a natural phenomenon, we see Dellarobia begins to absorb and codify her own response to this earth-changing butterfly visit.
The Monarch’s presence resonates throughout the tight community. The local pastor labels Dellarobia’s discovery as a vision. Her judgmental mother-in-law struggles with the concept of no return in a world where seasonal repetition and weekly sermons has established the rhythm of the universe. Her husband opens his eyes to his child-bride’s power, and the village patriarch yields his forest clearcut plans with grace and dignity.
Perhaps the high point of the novel comes when Ovid Byron locks horns — or antennae — with the blonde, assumptive media maven. He shoots down her media clichés and assumptions and banishes her from the scene. But always, Dellarobia’s heart and mind beats at the center of Flight Behavior, giving us a window into the reality of the unrealizable — that our planet is changing, fundamentally, drastically, and forever.
Kingsolver is one of my favorite novelists: she inevitably weaves deep social meaning into the fabric of her skilled and gorgeous works. But, as with many writers who have reached well-deserved heights, she needs editing. In Flight Behavior, she indulges us — and possibly herself — with a near-endless chapter in a goodwill store, describing in revolving detail the items for sale, the speculated-upon origins, and her kids' reactions to her 'yeses and nos. The scene serves a purpose, Dellarobia discusses plot points with her sidekick, Crystal but ten pages would have covered the territory; the other 40 seem over the top.
Conversely, toward the end of the book, Kingsolver seems to rush to the finish, using narrative to briefly describe life-changing scenes and circumstances.
Editorial problems notwithstanding, As Dellarobia moves into her next chapter, beyond the end of Flight Behavior, the reader is left with Kingsolver's subtle but definitive answer to the question "What is to be done?" Plenty.