The canary in the coalmine, the butterfly on the hill: Flight Behaviour

Flight Behaviour coverBarbara Kingsolver’s fourteenth novel, Flight Behaviour, is set in Tennessee. The characters are firmly rooted in a primarily pastoral landscape that turns out to be unstable, though most in the novel refuse to acknowledge the changes.

Dellarobia, the feisty young mother trapped in a domestic situation where her only outlet is crushes on local tradesmen, learns to see that the land on which their lives are based is changing before them. In doing so she recognises too the instability of the human landscape.

The book opens with Dellarobia in full flight, albeit in unsuitable shoes, up a mountain towards an extra-marital tryst. But the sight of mountain ranges aflame – not with fire but with something she cannot comprehend – sends her home again, with the sense that running away is not the answer.

The orange flame turns out to be millions of monarch butterflies, a beautiful ‘miracle’ that is the result of a horrible truth. Climate change is rearing its head in a town where people say that the weather is in the Lord’s hands. It changes Dellarobia’s outlook completely. Unlike most of those around her, she doesn’t have much faith in God, and is open to science and to encouraging her intelligent, questioning kindergarten-aged son in a way that few others are.

This is working-class rural America, where college isn’t part of the life plan, where people are judged if they don’t attend church, where floods and orchards rotting in the earth are all attributed to God’s will. But it is the poverty that is an unexpected feature of this novel; while Australians might perceive middle America as overweight and subsisting on junk food, this is a family that hasn’t had take away or eaten in a restaurant in two years.

This is a book about class and about the division of ideas. It is also about denial, and about the lack of security in both the earth and in each other as human beings. Dellarobia, never knowing what else there was to aspire to, sustained herself with crushes on men who were not her husband. Now a world opens to her that is both terrifying and much broader than anything she has ever known.

Kingsolver returns to her theme of religion in this novel – Dellarobia, despite being thrown out of Wednesday bible discussion for having the temerity to actually discuss, weaves bible metaphors into her thoughts throughout the book. Flood and fire: while the bible bashers deny that it is upon them, she is confronted with it through the evidence of science.

The ending of Flight Behaviour has been widely criticised, and while I share some of the criticisms the novel ultimately tells a powerful and imaginative story. It is a book that should be read, because from it there is so much to learn.

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