Barbara Kingsolver has used this novel to convey a message about global warming and climate change, topics about which she is passionate. She centres it in a small town in the bible-belt county of Tennessee, using the main protagonist – Dellarobia – to be the character through whom we are exposed to the threats of climate change.
Dellarobia is smart, pretty and bored with her life. She had a shotgun marriage at 17, which dashed her dreams of going to college and she now sits at home with two small children in the thick of domesticity, wifehood and small-town community life. Any attraction that might have existed between her and her husband, Cub, has long disappeared and Dellarobia distracts herself by having intense, passionate crushes on other men. She views Cub as being dependable and perhaps even simple; she’s somewhat condescending to him and looks to others for excitement.
The novel starts with Dellarobia walking up the hill behind her house, to meet the telephone man at a small hut for a forbidden tryst. She’s wearing new cheap boots which chafe her ankles, guilt chafes at her mind and nicotine-craving chafes her agitation. At the top of the hill, however, Dellarobia is faced with a vision of the valley on fire – resplendent in bright orange flickering movement. The beauty and awesomeness of the vision cause her to turn, abandoning her lover, to go back to her family and try to lead a better life.
The visitation of the burning valley turns out to be millions of migrating monarch butterflies that, instead of flying to Mexico to their usual site, have landed in the Turnbow family’s forest. There are millions of them, clinging to trees and branches in vast pods, rustling their wings, falling to the ground, constantly moving. The discovery has ripple effects throughout the community – Dellarobia becomes an inadvertent media star, the local pastor and the church community believe the butterflies have been sent from God, tourists flock in to see the butterflies, and a scientist arrives at Dellarobia’s door one day to work out why the butterflies have been thrown off path.
Ovid Byron is an African American entomologist, utterly foreign with his intelligence, looks and education. He sets up camp on Dellarobia and Cub’s farm, and slowly Dellarobia (and her son, Preston) become entranced by the man and his work. Dellarobia starts working for Ovid as an assistant and slowly we see how her own journey of flight begins, as Dellarobia realises how much she has missed working and feeling challenged.
Nature is a persistent theme throughout the book, wonderfully described by Kingsolver. The weather, the sheep, the flora, the butterflies. The small town is deluged by unseasonal rain, so well portrayed my book almost felt soggy when reading. Learning about the miracle of the migratory monarch butterflies was fascinating (well worth Googling after finishing the book).
The concern for the butterflies is that if the temperature doesn’t rise high enough, they will all die and this will affect the town in many different ways – Kingsolver uses this microcosmic example to highlight the plight of global warming. There is space here for Kingsolver to get preachy, and her main message about climate change is conveyed through Ovid Byron who is desperate for people to understand the extent of the problem, yet I think she manages to get away with it.
There are multiple nuances to this novel, too many to mention here, and this review does not do it justice. I thoroughly enjoyed Flight Behaviour, although I believe it could have done with a slightly tighter edit, and at times the dialogue seemed a bit forced. I took a while before I read it, because I had heard from a number of people that they couldn’t get into it, but I spent a whole weekend glued to the sofa with it in my hand. It’s well worth reading, whether you do so purely for the enjoyable story, for the informative climate change message or just for Kingsolver’s skillful writing.