Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (audio)

flightAnother beautiful, thought-provoking book from Kingsolver; and another outstanding narration by the author herself. Like The Lacuna, which I called one of the best books I read in 2012, this will be a standout. I fear this will be one of those longer reviews, as I have so much to say…

We open with a young mother of two in a less-than-thrilling marriage, named Dellarobia Turnbow, hiking up a mountain to meet a man for adulterous purposes. On her way there, she’s distracted by an amazing sight. The hills appear to be aflame, but there is no sound and no heat. She is amazed, and disturbed, and stands up her would-be lover and goes back home; it’s something like a religious experience, although she’s not particularly religious. She does, however, attend church – one of many compromises for the sake of her mother-in-law, who terrifies her.

Dellarobia lives on her in-laws’ sheep farm in Tennessee and rarely gets to leave the property. Her husband is kind but dull. She is frustrated. The strange thing happening up on the mountain, however, will expand her world: it has implications for climate change, and is variously interpreted as an event of an environmental as well as a religious nature.

The cool orange flame on the mountaintop is a mass migration of Monarch butterflies, pushed out of their normal overwintering site in Mexico by a mudslide that killed a village, caused in turn by clearcutting and climate change. Dellarobia doesn’t have the context to begin to comprehend such happenings, so she has to learn slowly; aiding her in this process is the amazing Dr. Ovid Byron, an entomologist who has written the book (many of them) on Monarchs who shows up to park his camper on the Turnbow farm and study their special mountain. Ovid is a striking figure – physically, as a black man, he is of such a minority in the rural mountains of Tennessee as to be exotic to Dellarobia; audibly, his accent (similar to Jamaican) is mellifluous and musical; and intellectually, he boggles Dellarobia’s mind and pushes her to new ways of thinking. This is a young woman who would have gone to college if she hadn’t gotten pregnant, and her thwarted ambitions are sparked by Ovid’s presence.

Meanwhile, the local religious community becomes convinced that Dellarobia prophesied the Monarchs’ arrival, that she had a vision; she is tentatively treated as a hero or religious figure, which doesn’t sit well with her feared mother-in-law, Hester. The media – local, and then national – blows things out of proportion, highlights the sensational, and alternately threatens to turn her into a sex symbol or accuses her of suicidal tendencies. Her marriage – which we learned in the opening scene was not strong or happy – is predictably strained by all the activity and attention. And perhaps most poignantly, her small son Preston is told by Ovid that he is a scientist, and begins a new way of thinking, himself.

As a family story or the story of one woman, alone, this would be an extraordinary masterpiece. Dellarobia is a remarkable woman, and I think she is probably representative of many young women who have greater abilities than they end up exploring, trapped (in Dellarobia’s case) in rural and familial circumstances that limit her. Just as in The Lacuna, one of Flight Behavior‘s greatest strengths is Dellarobia’s realness: her quirks, her frustrations, her fantansies, her day-to-day life and thoughts. We get to experience this story inside her head, and the inside of Dellarobia’s head, all by itself, would be a glorious gift for Kingsolver to bestow upon us. The other characters too, all of them, are fully realized, more real than the people I know in the real world; they’re complex, and even the initially unlikeable ones (I’m looking at you, Hester) are multi-faceted and deserving of our sympathy in the end.

But! That’s not all! There’s more to this story than Dellarobia and her family of wonderfully real, odd people. The Monarch butterflies, climate change, the complexities of farming in a changing world, the environmental movement, 350.org, and academia are all explored and examined in a wonderfully nuanced way. Idealistic young – and old – environmentalists show up on the scene as well, and there’s a lovely scene in which one of them quizzes Dellarobia on her commitment to leave a smaller carbon footprint. As it turns out, being rural and poor puts her in a pretty good place footprint-wise already, a fact which humbles (not to say embarrasses) her interlocutor.

Dellarobia turns out to be the perfect vehicle for teaching us all the science of Monarchs, of migration, of weather patterns and geography, of climate change, and of relationships among people and cultures. She’s ignorant, but not unintelligent, and once she learns how to open her mind, she is an inquisitive student; and Ovid Byron is a wonderful teacher, and let me add, his dreamy accent, so well performed in this audio edition, is to die for. [I do recommend listening rather than reading, upon which more in a moment.] However, this is never a polemic, and Dellarobia is far, far more than a vehicle; you remember I was terribly bothered by that issue in Sophie’s World, and a little bothered by it in Ishmael, but there is no trace of it here. As I wrote above, Dellarobia is very, very real. Instead, this is a moving, complex story, starring sympathetic, believable characters, that also handles some large, important questions: like, what are we doing with our world?

I have a quick note to make on the ending, mostly for my father. Pops has noted that where Derrick Jensen is brutally honest about our future, Bill McKibben tends to draw intelligent conclusions and then inexplicably end on what feels like an unrealistically optimistic note. Well, in the same vein, Kingsolver may end things a trifle more hopefully than is realistic – it feels good, you understand, but it’s a McKibben ending rather than a Jensen one, if you follow. And then she thanks McKibben in her Author’s Note, so that’s fitting.

The Author’s Note also includes a brief discussion of what in this story is true to life (and how she found it out), and what is fiction. This is a well-researched book, and I appreciate her delineating the boundary between fact and fiction, as I always do.

The audio narration by Kingsolver herself could not be improved upon. Dellarobia has an Appalachian twang and darling figures of speech. Her BFF Dovey is even cuter and mouthier; she collects jokey church billboard sayings, some of which Dellarobia is sure she makes up (“Moses was a basket case”). Dellarobia’s in-laws have their own audible personalities; her husband Cub is nothing in life if not sloooow in all respects including speech. And Ovid Byron! Oh, the accent. Swoon. Kingsolver does all these beautifully. If you have to read this book rather than listen to the author read it, then fine, but I pity you. Get the audiobook!! Do it!

Rating: without question a perfect 10 newborn lambs.

This book is so wonderful – particularly in Kingsolver’s masterful narration – that I wonder if I should go back and try some of her earlier work again. I remember being decidedly nonplussed by The Poisonwood Bible, and I know I’ve read The Bean Trees but have no impression of it (which is not a good sign); I can’t decide if I’ve read The Prodigal Summer or Animal Dreams or not (also not a good sign). But The Lacuna and this one are both so grand, I feel I should delve more deeply. Also, while I’m pondering past readings, I wonder why I keep getting Kingsolver crossed with Margaret Atwood in my mind? I wanted to attribute The Robber Bride (which I enjoyed) to Kingsolver. Maybe it’s that I’ve found them both a little hit-or-miss; I was less impressed with The Year of the Flood and ambivalent about Oryx and Crake and The Blind Assassin; have no impression from Surfacing; but loved The Penelopiad, and found The Edible Woman mindblowing.

6 Responses

  1. […] we both enjoyed some Kingsolver (The Lacuna, Flight Behavior) so very much, my mother is clearly pushing for me to enjoy this one along with her. She shared […]

  2. […] Kingsolver has captured my heart with The Lacuna and Flight Behavior. Only fitting, then, that she should make such a charming, truthful, and lyrical submission as this […]

  3. […] Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver (fiction) […]

  4. […] true, Pops! I reviewed not only Einstein but also Flight Behavior, which I […]

  5. […] Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: you can read my review, and also note that Kirk Smith and I both recommend this one; in a nutshell, Kingsolver teaches science in the most charmingly accessible of packages, the one and only Dr. Ovid Byron. You must read this; or better, you must hear the audio, because the accents are amazing. (Read by the author, a woman of many talents.) […]

  6. […] such a different skill, I think, than writing it. I think immediately of Barbara Kingsolver, whose Flight Behavior and The Lacuna were such breathtaking performances, completely aside from the excellent […]

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