It’s a challenge for a novelist to engage readers with a novel that takes climate change as its central theme. Even this “non-denier” (climate change sceptic) was initially turned off by the prospect of doomsday polemic. I needn’t have worried. Kingsolver’s eighth novel displays all the subtlety, grace and balance of her previous work, regardless of the subject matter.
Flight Behaviour is set in the Appalachians and is narrated from the viewpoint, and often in the colloquial idiom, of the rural American poor. As in her previous novels, Kingsolver gives a voice to those who are often overlooked or disregarded. Dellarobia, the novel’s protagonist, is a young woman thwarted by rural poverty, too bright for her role as a stay-at-home mother. Married to Cub, a devoted but dim-witted farm worker, she is reluctant to accept their limited horizons. Their lives are constrained by Dellarobia’s in-laws, who own the young couple’s home, the sheep farm, and the high forestry land above the grazing areas. Plans are afoot to start a logging venture that would bring much needed income to the families, but at the risk of a landslide similar to one in Mexico that drove their new neighbours from their home. Dellarobia craves adventure; she is tempted by the prospect of an affair with a younger man, but on her way to an assignation, she undergoes an unexpected epiphany when she witnesses a dazzling natural phenomenon, a colony of millions of Monarch butterflies.
Two worlds collide with the arrival of Ovid Byron, the scientist, and his team of university researchers. To Dellarobia, these educated strangers inhabit a distant and unattainable world populated by people who can afford to fly across the country to study butterflies. Dellarobia feels ashamed of her ignorance and poverty and she alone in her community aspires to understand and participate in that alternative world:
Educated people had powers…they were post graduates or doc-graduates, something, it was too late to ask now because she’d pretended to know what it all meant when they were first introduced.
The main focus of the novel is climate change, explored through the threat of landslip due to increased rainfall, which could be exacerbated by the proposed logging venture; however, the narrator also comments on the seemingly irresistible hegemony of global capitalism, mass consumerism, and the loss of skilled labour in the West. She recalls the trajectory of her parents’ working lives, as the value put on their once highly prized craft skills was gradually eroded by the emergence of the late 20th century ‘throwaway’ economy. On a fraught Christmas shopping trip, she reflects on her own position in the world and that of other working people caught up in the machine…
She looked over the bins of tinselly junk and felt despair, trying to find one single thing that wouldn’t fall apart before you got it home. …there had to be armies of factory workers making this slapdash stuff, underpaid people cranking out things for underpaid people to buy and use up, living their lives mostly to cancel each other out. A worldwide entrapment of bottom feeders.
However, when Dellarobia offers to replace a broken jacket zip, the scientific team are amazed by her dressmaking skills. She comes to realise that they respect certain aspects of her life that she takes for granted. Gradually, the divide between Dellarobia’s world and that of the scientists diminishes, as she begins to take part in the butterfly survey as a paid assistant. The future begins to offer opportunities that Dellarobia would never have dared to imagine, but change, as always, comes at a price.
My only reservation about this novel is that Kingsolver, in putting herself in the position of Dellarobia, uses scores of references to 21st century American culture- idiomatic terms, brand names, television shows, and celebrity presenters – putting the novel in danger of dating more quickly than it otherwise might. Given the importance of its message, this would be a great shame.