Day 11 of my Book Advent Calendar brings us to “K” and I’ve opted for a well-known author, Barbara Kingsolver. I could have chosen any number of her books, The Poisonwood Bible being one of my favourite, but I thought this one was appropriate considering the climate change conference in Paris.
Day 11: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Near her hardscrabble sheep farm in Tennessee, Dellarobia Turnbow discovers millions of monarch butterflies who have deviated from their normal migration pattern to Mexico. The discovery brings the world to her doorstep, the tourists, the eco-activists, and the media among them. Also to arrive is Ovid Byron, a lepidopterist who hires Dellarobia to help research why the butterflies have arrived in Appalachia.
The answer soon becomes clear: climate change as a result of global warming. The butterflies’ Mexican home has been destroyed by flooding exacerbated by deforestation. Initially, Dellarobia is not a believer in climate change; gradually, however, she changes her mind as evidence is presented to her. Unfortunately others in the community are not so open-minded; her father-in-law, for example, wants to log the mountain which the butterflies have chosen for their winter home. The blindness of climate change deniers is addressed strongly by Ovid: “’What scientists disagree on now . . . is how to express our shock. The glaciers that keep Asia’s watersheds in business are going right away. . . . The Arctic is genuinely collapsing. Scientists used to call these things the canary in the mine. What they say now is, The canary is dead. We are at the top of Niagara Falls . . . in a canoe. . . . We got here by drifting, but we cannot turn around for a lazy paddle back when you finally stop pissing around. We have arrived at the point of an audible roar. Does it strike you as a good time to debate the existence of the falls?’’’ (367)
The serious social message is expertly intertwined with a personal story. Dellarobia is unhappy and frustrated with her life. She feels trapped in her marriage to Cub, a dim-witted, unimaginative, passive man overshadowed by his parents. Though he is decent, good-hearted, and well-meaning, he cannot provide her with an escape from their economically and intellectually impoverished life. Working for Ovid serves as an awakening for Dellarobia. She gains self-confidence as her horizons expand and decides to seek personal fulfillment, searching, like the butterflies, for the place where she belongs. Obviously she metamorphoses from caterpillar to butterfly, although at the end she, again like the butterflies, is faced with an uncertain future.
There are many Biblical allusions in the novel. Dellarobia sees a flaming forest, like Moses saw a burning bush. References to Noah’s flood appear more than once. I foresee students of English literature writing essays analyzing Kingsolver’s use of Biblical allusions to add depth to her novel.
This is literary fiction at its best; it combines an interesting plot and a dynamic protagonist with an urgent message: the world is a “mess made by undisciplined humans” (25) who must stop behaving like “ignorant little dumb-heads” (41) or “the world [will] fall down around them” (25).