by Barbara Kingsolver
Hardcover (6 Nov 2012), 448 pages.
(Due out in paperback Jun 2013)
Flight Behavior transfixes from its opening scene, when a young woman's narrow experience of life is thrown wide with the force of a raging fire. In the lyrical language of her native Appalachia, Barbara Kingsolver bares the rich, tarnished humanity of her novel's inhabitants and unearths the modern complexities of rural existence. Characters and reader alike are quickly carried beyond familiar territory here, into the unsettled ground of science, faith, and everyday truces between reason and conviction.
Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. Now, after a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, she has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks momentary escape through an obsessive flirtation with a younger man. As she hikes up a mountain road behind her house to a secret tryst, she encounters a shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire. She can only understand it as a cautionary miracle, but it sparks a raft of other explanations from scientists, religious leaders, and the media. The bewildering emergency draws rural farmers into unexpected acquaintance with urbane journalists, opportunists, sightseers, and a striking biologist with his own stake in the outcome. As the community lines up to judge the woman and her miracle, Dellarobia confronts her family, her church, her town, and a larger world, in a flight toward truth that could undo all she has ever believed.
Flight Behavior takes on one of the most contentious subjects of our time: climate change. With a deft and versatile empathy Kingsolver dissects the motives that drive denial and belief in a precarious world.
The Measure of a Man
A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise. Innocence was no part of this. She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace. The shame and loss would infect her children too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them. Even the teenage cashiers at the grocery would take an edge with her after this, clicking painted fingernails on the counter while she wrote her check, eyeing the oatmeal and frozen peas of an unhinged family and exchanging looks with the bag boy: She's that one. How they admired their own steadfast lives. Right up to the day when hope in all its versions went out of stock, including the crummy discount brands, and the heart had just one instruction left: run. Like a hunted animal, or a racehorse, winning or losing felt exactly alike at this stage, with the same coursing of blood and shortness of breath. She smoked too much, that was another mortification to throw in with the others. But she had cast her lot. Plenty of people took this way out, looking future damage in the eye and naming it something else. Now it was her turn. She could claim the tightness in her chest and call it bliss, rather than the same breathlessness she could be feeling at home right now while toting a heavy laundry basket, behaving like a sensible mother of two.
The children were with her mother-in-law. She'd dropped off those babies this morning on barely sufficient grounds, and it might just kill her to dwell on that now. Their little faces turned up to her like the round hearts of two daisies: She loves me, loves me Not. All those hopes placed in such a precarious vessel. Realistically, the family could be totaled. That was the word, like a wrecked car wrapped around a telephone pole, no salvageable parts. No husband worth having is going to forgive adultery if it comes to that. And still she felt pulled up this incline by the hand whose touch might bring down all she knew. Maybe she even craved the collapse, with an appetite larger than sense.
At the top of the pasture she leaned against the fence to catch up on oxygen, feeling the slight give of the netted woven wire against her back. No safety net. Unsnapped her purse, counted her cigarettes, discovered she'd have to ration them. This had not been a thinking-ahead kind of day. The suede jacket was wrong, too warm, and what if it rained? She frowned at the November sky. It was the same dull, stippled ceiling that had been up there last week, last month, forever. All summer. Whoever was in charge of weather had put a recall on blue and nailed up this mess of dirty white sky like a lousy drywall job. The pasture pond seemed to reflect more light off its surface than the sky itself had to offer. The sheep huddled close around its shine as if they too had given up on the sun and settled for second best. Little puddles winked all the way down Highway 7 toward Feathertown and out the other side of it, toward Cleary, a long trail of potholes glinting with watery light.
The sheep in the field below, the Turnbow family land, the white frame house she had not slept outside for a single night in ten-plus years of marriage: that was pretty much it. The widescreen version of her life since age seventeen. Not including the brief hospital excursions, childbirth-related. Apparently, today was the day she walked out of the picture. Distinguishing herself from the luckless sheep that stood down there in the mud surrounded by the deep stiletto holes of their footprints, enduring life's bad deals. They'd worn their heavy wool through the muggy summer, and now that winter was almost here, they would be shorn. Life was just one long proposition they never saw coming. Their pasture looked drowned. In the next field over, the orchard painstakingly planted by the neighbors last year was now dying under the rain. From here it all looked fixed and strange, even her house, probably due to the angle. She only looked out those windows, never into them, given the company she kept with people who rolled plastic trucks on the floor. Certainly she never climbed up here to check out the domestic arrangement. The condition of the roof was not encouraging.
From Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver Copyright © 2012 by Barbara Kingsolver. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- What is the significance of the novel's title? Talk about the imagery of flight. How is it represented throughout the story?
- How do the chapter titles relate both to scientific concepts as well as the events that unfold within each chapter itself?
- Describe Dellarobia. How is she of this mountain town in Tennessee and how is she different from it? How are she and her family connected to the land and to nature itself? How are they disconnected? How does this shape their viewpoints? How does she describe herself? Do you agree with her self-assessment?
- Talk about the characters namesDellarobia, Preston, Cordelia, Dovey, Ovid Byron, Cub, Bear, Hester. How does the author's choice of nomenclature suit her characters? When you first meet these characters, including Pastor Bobby, what were your first impressions? Were your notions about them challenged as the story progressed?
- Describe the small town in Tennessee where Dellarobia lives. What are the people like? Are they familiar to you? What is everyday life like for them? What are their major joys and concerns? How you strike a balance between protecting nature when your livelihood depends upon its destruction?
- Talk about Della's relationships with the various people in her life: Cub, Hester, Pastor Bobby, Dovey, Ovid Byron. What do her experiences teach her about herself and life?
- How does Della react when she first sees the Monarchs? What greater meaning do the butterflies hold for her? How is she like the butterflies? How does finding them transform her life? Were the butterflies a miracle?
- As news of her discovery spreads, what are the reactions of her in-laws and her neighbors? How do they view Della? What are their impressions of the scientists and tourists who descend upon their remote town?
- What does Dellarobia think about her new friends, and especially Ovid Byron? What about the scientistshow do they view people like Della, her family, and her neighbors? Does either side see they other realistically?
- Cub and his father, Bear, want to sell the patch of forest where the Monarchs are to a lumber company for clear-cutting. What ramifications would this have, not only for the butterflies but for Della's family and her town? Why is it often difficult for people see the long-term effects of their immediate actions? Cub doesn't consider conserving nature to be his problem. What might you say to convince him otherwise?
- Though she may not have a formal education beside her high school diploma, would you call Dellarobia wise? Where does her knowledge come from? Is she religious? Their Christian faith is very important to many of her neighbors. How does Barbara Kingsolver portray religion, faith, and God in the novel? What are your impressions of Pastor Bobby?
- "Kids in Feathertown wouldn't know college-bound from a hole in the ground. They don't need it for life around here. College is kind of irrelevant.," Della tells Ovid. Why isn't college important to these people? Should it be? Would you say the people of Feathertown respect education? Why is faith and instinct enough for some people? When she explained this to Ovid, "His eyes went wide, as if she'd mentioned they boiled local children alive. His shock gave her a strange satisfaction she could not have explained. Insider status, maybe." Explain her attitude. Yet Dellarobia also believes that, "educated people had powers." What does she mean by this? How does education empower people? Can it also blind them?
- After Dellarobia's parents died, what options did she have? She wanted to go to schooland did tryshe tells Ovid. "People who hadn't been through it would think it was that simple: just get back on the bus, ride to the next stop. He would have no inkling of the great slog of effort that tied up people like her in the day to day. Or the quaking misgivings that infected every step forward, after a loss. Even now, dread still struck her down sometimes if she found herself counting on things being fine. Meaning her now-living children and their future, those things. She had so much more to lose now than just herself or her own plans." What are the factors that hold back people in Dellarobia's circumstances? How can they be overcome? How is each character's ideas about the future colored by his or her circumstances?
- Flight Behavior illuminates the conflicting attitudes of different classes towards nature and the idea of climate change. How does each side see this issue? Where do they find common ground? Do you believe in global warming or climate change? Explain the basis of your beliefs. How much do you know about both the proponents and opponents in this debate?
- Why do so many Americans fear or dislike science? Why do so many others fear or dislike religion? What impact do these attitudes have on the nation now and what do they portend for our future?
- For Dellarobia, "Nobody truly decided for themselves, there was too much information. What they actually did was scope around, decide who was looking out for their clan, and sign on for the memos on a wide array of topics." Do you agree that this is a fair assessment of a divided America? How can we get beyond our judgments and stereotypes?
- How is media both a help and a hindrance in our understanding of social issues? How does it offer clarity and how does it add confusion? How is the media portrayed in Flight Behavior? What impact does it have on Dellarobia and the fate of the butterflies? People are envious that the media pays attention to Dellarobia, yet she says being interviewed was like, "having her skin peeled off." Why are so many people consumed by a desire for fame?
- Ovid has doubts about his work. "What was the use of saving a world that had no soul left in it. Continents without butterflies, seas without coral reefs, he meant. What if all human effort amounted basically to saving a place for ourselves to park?" he asks Dellarobia? How would you answer him?
- Flight Behavior interweaves important themes: religion and science, poverty and wealth, education and instinct or faith, intolerance and acceptance, How are these themes used to complement each other and how do they conflict? Choose one theme and trace it throughout the novel, explaining how it illuminates a particular character's life.
- At the end of the novel, Dellarobia recalls when Ovid Byron first met Preston and declared the boy a scientist. "A moment, Dellarobia now believed, that changed Preston's life. You never knew which split second might be the zigzag bolt dividing all that went before from everything that comes next." Have you ever had such a defining moment in your life? Was there a special person who influenced you and helped guide or shift the course of your life?
- What do you think will happen to Dellarobia, Preston, and Cordelia?
- What did you take away from reading Flight Behavior?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
Flight Behavior allows readers to go inside the southern Appalachian landscape that Barbara Kingsolver has held in a literary embrace over the last few years with works like Prodigal Summer and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. This time, it's to go into the coarse world of Feathertown, Tennessee, home of Dellarobia, a farmer's wife and young mother. Dellarobia's small world is disrupted when millions of monarch butterflies unexplainably migrate to the region, choosing Dellarobia's family farm as their resting place. The novel that results from this fictional event is an engaging read for armchair biologists, naturalists, and readers who are concerned about climate change.
While Kingsolver's novels have always contained political, environmental and social messages, these messages are rendered with a particularly strong hand in Flight Behavior. Many chapters include long, in-depth explorations of ecological change, biology, lepidopterology (the study of butterflies and moths), and animal behavior. The almost essayistic undertones to each chapter place the novel at a halfway mark between Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, her work of nonfiction, and her previous novels: The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, and others. Flight Behavior is a novel, but it has the informative heft and persuasive manner of a work of nonfiction.
This is not to say that Flight Behavior is a thinly veiled diatribe. Kingsolver works her concerns and commentary into a strong, plot-based frame that allows the reader to experience the characters' growth and see them in varying ways. The character of Hester, for example, begins the story as Dellarobia's grumpy, judgmental mother-in-law but she does not stay that way. Though some are borderline stereotypes, there are also dynamic individuals who interact in the dramatically complex ways of family and friends. There are also characters, mostly who play small, supporting roles, that struck me as unique and complex. There is the entomologist graduate student who builds a sweet relationship with Dellarobia's son, and Dovey, a sassy friend who provides comic relief as well as a vivid depiction of a modern, rural southern woman. Kingsolver's ability to so clearly show these somewhat simple characters demonstrating her ecological concerns is masterful, and one of the several consistent qualities in her writing that is worth considerable admiration.
If there is a place where Kingsolver falls short with Flight Behavior, it is through her characterization of Dellarobia and some of the other prominent figures. I occasionally questioned their motivations; for example, what makes Dellarobia sensitive and open-minded to intellectual and scientific concerns when she is surrounded by those who are not; but there is nothing to point to in her life that sets her experience apart from every other Tennessean in the novel?
One noticeable change in Kingsolver's depiction of the South is her liberal use of realism. The world of rural Tennessee is rendered with less tenderness than similar Appalachian locations in Kingsolver's previous novels. This Tennessee is impoverished, deeply conservative, uneducated, and mostly adverse to education. While Kingsolver eventually shows this small town in differing lights, breaking the backwater portrait she begins with, the majority of the novel works to show a community that, when met with strong evidence of climate change, retreats into religion and anti-intellectualism rather than science.
This is perhaps where Flight Behavior succeeds best: it shows the reality of how different social and economic groups in America view global warming, and the implicit danger in all Americans not fully understanding the magnitude and complexity of climate change. Kingsolver speaks to trendy "going green" habits, the failure of poor public schools to teach science, the religious issues surrounding evolution, and the modern-day concerns of rural American farmers. Though the ecological event that drives Flight Behavior is fictional, the concerns that are voiced and demonstrated are very, very real.
Barbara Kingsolver discusses Flight Behavior in the video below:
Reviewed by Elizabeth Whitmore Funk
…Enthralling…Dellarobia is appealingly complex as a smart, curious, warmhearted woman desperate to - no resisting the metaphor here - trade her cocoon for wings.
A dazzling page-turner
Starred Review. With her powerful new novel, Kingsolver delivers literary fiction that conveys an urgent social message… a clarion call about climate change, too lucid and vivid for even skeptics to ignore.
Starred Review. Drawing on both her Appalachian roots and her background in biology, Kingsolver delivers a passionate novel on the effects of global warming.
Starred Review. People trying to survive economically day-by-day. One of Kingsolver's better efforts at preaching her politics and pulling heartstrings at the same time.
Rated of 5
by Dorothy T.
Many layers to this story
Although heavy on the scientific details, which slowed down the story for me (OK, I admit, I was one of those liberal arts majors who skipped out on science classes), Barbara Kingsolver gives her readers much to think about seriously: How we tend to settle for what seems good in our lives at the loss of the best; how we let preconceived notions affect our understanding of people and facts; how some of us may know a lot about something but if we are unable to communicate that knowledge with others, our effectiveness can be lost; and there is a strong ecological message. The prose here is outstanding, as I always expect from this author, and the setting and the characters are real. There is much here for book club discussions.
Rated of 5
by Diane S.
It is so very welcome to once again have Kingsolver write about the rural and mountain areas that have produced some of my favorite novels of hers. The character of Dellarobia and her children, wonderful and so earnest little Preston, the situations she found herself in as a mother had me chuckling they were so familiar. The pictures painted of the hills and trees covered with amazing butterflies that lit up the forest were absolutely beautiful. The harm we are doing to the environment and our food sources are a particular concern of this author, as it is mine, but at times she does come off a little preachy and repetitive which at times I found a little off-putting. I found the pacing in some areas to be a little slow, the first 100 pgs. seem to take a while and while I liked Dellarobia I also found the way she acted frustrating. Although she does somewhat redeem herself at the end of the book, by far my two favorite characters were little Preston and the scientist. So I liked this book, enjoyed some areas more than others, but I just didn't get into this book as much as I wished I could.
Rated of 5
by Cloggie Downunder
Kingsolver's best yet
Flight Behaviour is the 5th stand-alone novel by Barbara Kingsolver. In the Appalachian Mountains above her home, eastern Tennessee farm wife and mother of two, Dellarobia Turnbow is about to take a step that will change her unsatisfactory life forever when she is arrested by a vision of something she has never before encountered. What seems like a miracle is, however, threatened by her father-in-law’s decision to allow the mountain to be clear-felled by a logging company. Those who start reading and think this is the formulaic righteous woman plus scientist battling against hick farmers and loggers to save endangered species will need to think again! Of all the things I predicted about this novel at the beginning, the only one I got right was that it is very, very good. I was assured of that in just the first few pages by prose like “How they admired their own steadfast lives. Right up to the day when hope in all its versions went out of stock, including the crummy discount brands, and the heart had just one instruction left: run.” and “Whoever was in charge of the weather had put a recall on blue and nailed up this mess of dirty-white sky like a lousy sheet-rock job.“ I also loved “His moustache made two curved lines around the sides of his mouth like parentheses, as if everything he might say would be very quiet, and incidental.“ This novel has a plot that didn’t go where I expected; the characters, too, surprised me when I thought I had their measure. Kingsolver skilfully conveys the desperation of poverty in everyday life and its effect on education, life choices and what people come to believe. She also highlights the importance of the manner in which scientists convey their message to the general public. This novel had me laughing out loud (especially at Dovey’s church marquee sayings), choking up, giving a cheer (for Facebook of all things!), moved to caring about the fate of certain insects and thinking about many things: climate change, poverty, the decline of craftsmanship in the face of mass production, the cost of research, the disposable society and the increasing waste of goods. Kingsolver manages to make a huge amount of information about lepidoptery, sheep farming and lambing, global warming and the environment, easy to assimilate by incorporating it into this wonderfully uplifting tale. Her passion for the environment and our role in climate change is apparent in every paragraph. A brilliant, thought-provoking read, probably her best yet!
Rated of 5
by Tillie H
Flight Behavior says it all
It’s the story of Dellarobia, who finds herself restless with life. She's basically trapped in a marriage with a man who she has come to love because he's good to her. She wakes up one morning set out on going to a rendezvous with a younger man who has flattered her. Instead she finds a colony of Monarch butterflies that have migrated to her little town in the Appalachian Mountains. She is so awestruck by this sight that she decides to go back to her family and "do the right thing". When her father-in-law announces that he wants to cut the trees down, she rises up and tells the community that she has seen this miracle of the butterflies.
Her announcement brings notoriety to her and starts a phenomenon that will rock her world to the core. She becomes very involved in the study of the butterflies and finds that she has more to offer the world than what her life consists of at this point. This phenomenon leads her to discover that she has just been settling for things because of the mistakes she has made.
It’s a very poignant story of a young woman struggling to find her true self and place in the world. As she struggles to find who she really is, she encounters secrets about her in-laws and husband. As the story concludes, the secrets lead her to once again make the decision to leave her current life, but to go off in a totally different direction. She decides to stop settling for what she has and go for more.
A very well-written book that will leave you with more knowledge about Monarch butterflies than you ever thought you needed, and shows the struggles of life in an Appalachian community.
The misguided migration of monarch butterflies to southern Appalachia in Flight Behavior is a fictional event, but Kingsolver grounds her theoretical occurrence in reality. As readers see through the character of Lupe, the Mexican wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly are damaged by drastic flooding and mudslides. This event is, sadly, entirely true.
In February 2010 the town of Angangueo, Mexico was devastated with floods and landslides. The damage caused the local economy to rely even more heavily on its butterfly-related tourism due to the extensive damage to the town's infrastructure, crop productions, and ability to farm cattle. Angangueo is located in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Biosphere Reserve is famous for the millions of monarchs who winter here every fall, but the species is very susceptible to environmental shifts and climate change, and in March 2012 the World Wildlife Fund estimated that that the number of monarch butterflies wintering in the reserve had dropped by nearly a third since 2011. Possible reasons include deforestation, logging, landslides, and the environmental impact of tourism.
Sustainable tourism or "ecotourism" is a key factor to the survival of the monarch butterflies' habitat. As Kingsolver shows in Flight Behavior, many people come to care greatly about ecology when they are confronted directly with environmental concerns. The more people who travel to Mexico to be awed by the natural beauty of the butterfly colonies, the more likely they are to care about maintaining a healthy planet for species like the monarch.
To learn more about the monarch's migration journey, click on the video, from the New York Times, below:
You can help track the monarch's migration by means of this iPhone app.
The town of Angangueo in Mexico, (picture from Monarchwatch.org), houses the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
Picture of monarch butterfly by Sudheer Apte, Massachusetts Summer 2012.