Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver starts with an engaging premise. “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is akin to rapture,” thinks Dellarobia Turnbow as she walks up the mountain behind her home for an illicit tryst with Jimmy, the sexy telephone lineman, a tryst that she knows will likely destroy her marriage and her reputation.
It is understood, dear fellow readers, that we would never do anything self destructive. No! Yet Dellarobia’s premise is strangely engaging. Think of Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinivere, or the more contemporary Rabbit Run by John Updike. The illicit relationship is fertile ground for narrative art despite or perhaps because of the risk of prurience. Our good angel cannot help but whisper into Dellarobia’s right ear as she walks up the mountain, “Don’t go through with this. You can still turn back.” But into her left ear our bad angel says, “Go ahead. If your life was so perfect you would never have arranged this sexcapade in the first place.”
And many examples of the imperfection of Dellarobia’s life present themselves as she walks up and down the mountain. The trees are in trouble, as they are in my neighborhood and worldwide. Her family’s roof is deteriorating and her house is surrounded by rotting orchards, gardens, and hay fields, the result of freakishly heavy rains, part of global warming, climate change, or weird weather, whatever you want to call it. But understand, dear fellow readers, that climate change, real or not, is never going to effect us!
But she turns back without meeting Jimmy. Why? Because she dimly sees what she later learns are vast multitudes of monarch butterflies in their continental migration. They hang from trees in dark brown clumps and fill the valley with what looks to her like orange fire. She’s frightened but also in awe before something wholly other, a veritable burning bush in her path.
“This was not just another fake thing in her life’s cheap chain of events… Unearthly beauty had appeared to her… For her alone…”
So she turns back and Flight Behavior becomes a didactic novel about climate change. Dellarobia is a snarky, funny, and insightful narrator, so seen through her eyes it does double duty as a bildungsroman. Biologist Kingsolver teaches us volumes about monarch migration and climate change with insightful sidebars about the influence of big oil, big media, farm economics, rural attitudes, contemporary mega churches, science and math in public education, and the unexpected relationship between the four stages of grief and climate change. Not to mention the funny sides of eco-activism and the absurdity of Christmas and grocery shopping while poor.
Our book club will doubtless sift through Flight Behavior chapter by chapter, but we’ll shield you from the spoilers here. Suffice it to say that Kingsolver’s characters make a compelling, seemingly inevitable narrative from what could have been a slog of a seminar. Great company, some of them, and must-to-avoid others, but all are fully 3D with sometimes surprising back stories and their own highly plausible reasons for whatever they do. However much you know or don’t know about climate change, this book will leave you, like Dellarobia Turnbow, a changed person.
Victor Lucas with special thanks to The York County Library Book Club