The Butterflies Are Telling Us Something

by CHARLES R. LARSON

To write a novel about climate change is a daunting task for any writer, even one as gifted as Barbara Kingsolver.  Fortunately, this aspect of Flight Behavior is not only imaginative but also convincing.  I have a few reservations about the story, but more about that later.  Rather, let’s focus on several of the many clever scenes in Kingsolver’s story that illustrate the author at her best, at the top of her wit.  The novel’s main character, Dellarobia Turnbow, is in her late twenties but married eleven years, with two children, though there was an earlier one who died at childbirth. The four of them—including her husband, Cub, and their two children—live on a farm, adjacent to her in-law’s property that includes a wooded area at the top of a hill.

The larger setting is in Tennessee, in a place called Feathertown, where most of the people (at least those in the story) are just barely holding on because of the recent economic downturn, though even in the best of times these people are poor.  One day, Dellarobia is about to trek into the woods of her in-law’s property and meet the man she hopes will become her lover, but on her way she encounters a sight so overwhelming that she turns back before the assignation. That incident (which she doesn’t immediately understand because she’s forgotten to wear her glasses) is the climatological center of the story: the mass migration of monarch butterflies away from their usual wintering site in Mexico and, instead, to Tennessee.

Much later in the story, after the relocation of the butterflies has become national news and assorted hippies, reporters, and sightseers have flocked into the area—crossing Dellarobia and Cub’s property to get to the trail into the woods—one of the do-gooders is a man called Leighton Akins, who passes out brochures to all the people who visit the site to view the butterflies.  As he tells Dellarobia, “It’s a list of things you promise to do to lower your carbon footprint. That means to use less fossil fuel.  To relieve the damage of carbon emissions to the planet.” He reads the list aloud to her. “Number one.  Bring your own Tupperware to a restaurant for leftovers, as often as possible.”  Dellarobia responds, “I’ve not eaten at a restaurant in over two years.”

Akins reads his list, with no idea how people who are truly poor can possibly relate to his goals.  When he tells her that buying used goods helps to recycle the earth’s resources, Dellarobia flinches because that’s all she ever does: shop at thrift stores.  Switching stock investments to “socially minded” corporations is another unfathomable concept, because she and most of her friends have no investments.  Ditto, the problem of  lowering thermostats in the winter and raising them in the summer for people without central heating and A/C systems.  The last item on his list is the suggestion that people “Fly less,” but how does that matter to someone who’s never been on a plane?

Flying less smacks directly at the center of Kingsolver’s story, because the millions of monarch butterflies have picked an inauspicious location for their attempt to escape the altered weather pattern of their usual site in Mexico.  If it gets too cold in Tennessee, they’ll all freeze to death and be unable to reproduce.  Thus, no more flying at all as a species comes close to extinction.  But flight behavior can also apply to bad behavior in general—even Dellarobia’s plan at the beginning of the novel to flee her marriage and start life over again somewhere without the burden of a man who seems to have no backbone or goals in life.

Where this all started for Dellarobia and Cub was a pregnancy and quick marriage when she was seventeen years old, followed by the stillbirth of that child.  She should have flown away from her marriage at that time, but with little or no family of her own, she did not—thus curtailing her dreams of getting a university education and some years of freedom before there were children to deal with.  She’s actually a very good mother, and her educational goals have been pushed underground until the arrival of the butterflies.  After that, there’s no going forward with the same dreary life because a reporter who interviews her—Dellarobia was the first person to see the butterflies—turns her attempted assignation into a mystical experience (“Our Lady of the Butterflies”).  Shortly after that, hundreds of other people arrive to see the butterflies, including a scientist (a famous lepidopterist) and his crew of assistants who settle in at the site for several months, recording the fate of the relocated butterflies.

There are wonderful moments in this novel: magical descriptions of the butterflies, the author’s urgency in addressing climate change, an equally impressive understanding of the media in America reducing everything to entertainment, but Dellarobia’s own transformation, for me, turns out to be a little too sugary.  I like her as a character—her swift grasp of things, her growing ability to understand complex issues, the scenes of drudgery and delight with her children, even her long-suffering relationship with Cub’s suffocating parents. But I couldn’t quite accept the novel’s ending.  Still, Barbara Kingsolver is a first-rate wordsmith; her writing almost always dazzles; and she knows how to create memorable characters caught in memorable situations.

Barbara Kingsolver: Flight Behavior 

Harper, 449 pp., $28.99

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.    

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