There’s a scene late in Flight Behavior in which a passionate environmentalist tries to help an Appalachian housewife to reduce her carbon footprint.
I come to places like this, instead of Portland or San Francisco. You people need to get on board, the same as everyone else. If not more so.
Provocative, othering words: you people. His intentions are seemingly good and he has a passionate conviction of being right. This man has traveled hundreds of miles to try to effect change. And there is something in that journey that indicates respect. In a time when almost no one even bothers to show up, there’s a certain dignity he’s offering the community here. He came to give them a straight talk about what global warming is and how it might affect them.
A choice: here is information. Will you take it?
Here are things you can do. Will you act?
The disconnect becomes clear when a woman in the community he’s trying to influence tries to listen to what he has to offer, no matter how condescendingly phrased. Dellarobia, unlike the others in the area, is convinced that global warming is real. She is ready to pitch in if she can help humanity avoid catastrophe. So she asks him: whaddaya got?
Well, he says, when you go to restaurants try to bring Tupperware for your leftovers.
Restaurant? She hasn’t been to a restaurant in years. Not in the budget.
Try your best to find secondhand stores and buy used goods.
Fly … less.
The activist hasn’t learned anything about the culture he’s trying to reshape. He comes in convinced that these people need to change their ways — more than educated, Birkenstock-wearing city dwellers, he specifically says — but he has no idea what their ways actually are.
Now, is this guy a bit of a strawman? Yes. Absolutely. But there’s a grain of truth in this scene, and it’s one I haven’t seen repeated elsewhere ad nauseam.
The premise of Flight Behavior is that the migration pattern of the monarch butterfly has changed, mysteriously, such that the bulk of the world’s monarch population is attempting to winter in Appalachia. Dellarobia Turnbow (what a name!), a disaffected housewife, discovers the monarch colony as she’s on the way to an illicit assignation. The appearance of the butterflies and a team of scientists spur Dellarobia to reconsider whether the life she’s dissatisfied with is the only one available to her. The major points of the novel are:
- Dellarobia is trapped by an early pregnancy and poverty and inertia
- The monarch butterfly migration phenomenon is beautiful and mysterious and scientifically fascinating
- Global warming is bad
Flight Behavior spends entirely too much time on a clunky, didactic delivery of #3, undermining the mostly-compelling human drama of #1 and the expressive imagery and mystery of #2.
The worst of it is that the example Barbara Kingsolver chooses to illustrate the tangible effects of global warming — the alteration of butterfly migration patterns — is a complete fabrication. Of all the true examples available to illustrate her point, she chose None Of The Above. Now, this is fine if the novel is an extended parable — the imagery of the sea of butterflies is vivid and seductive.
The density of the butterflies in the air now gave her a sense of being underwater, plunged into a deep pond among bright fishes. They filled the sky. Out across the valley, the air itself glowed golden. Every tree on the far mountainside was covered in trembling flame, and that, of course, was butterflies.
But the book is more like a polemic than a parable. And if you’re going to write an effective polemic, you’ve got to honor the facts.
The parable would have been a better choice, for my taste, but that’s not the choice Kingsolver makes. Unfortunately, that’s why this novel falls flat.
Read more from Aunt Ada Doom at Two Wrongs and a Write.