Strange things are happening in Appalachia. The
natural world as we know it is coming to an end, overheated
by human greed.
''Global warming'' is a dangerously loaded expression in the
rural, Republican-loving, God-fearing Tennessee of Barbara
Kingsolver's didactic and preachy new novel, Flight
Behaviour. The people of the fictional Feathertown have been
taught by radio that it's a big-city scam concocted by Al
But then shifting global weather patterns bring millions of
butterflies to the property of Dellarobia Turnbow's family.
They're monarchs, the same ones that usually migrate to
Mexico. Freaked out by warmer temperatures and a
logging-induced flood that wiped out their Mexican habitat,
they've turned north to spend winter in the American South.
In Kingsolver's telling, the locals are too closed-minded to
wrap their brains around this scientific truth, even when
it's staring them in the face.
The appearance of the butterflies in the hills above
Feathertown is a miracle, the local evangelical preacher
says. Let's charge people to see them, Dellarobia's
mother-in-law says. No, says Dellarobia's father-in-law:
Let's kill them all with DDT!
Dellarobia, a stay-at-home mother with two young children, is
different - she took honours English at Feathertown High. Not
only does it rile her that people in Feathertown end their
sentences with prepositions, but she's also one of the small
minority of enlightened people there who don't automatically
distrust outsiders and scientists.
When a group of lepidopterists alights in Feathertown,
Dellarobia learns the dark secret behind the appearance of
those millions of feathery creatures.
''They said it means something's really gone wrong,'' she
tells her husband, Cub.
''Wrong with what?'' Cub asks.
''The whole earth, if you want to know. It's like the End of
Flight Behaviour has many of the trappings of a work of
literary fiction. A strong female protagonist with a
complicated recent past, for example, and extended, dreamy
descriptions of a shifting natural landscape. But after just
a chapter or two, the novel's true purpose becomes clear -
it's a Blue State morality tale about Red State people and
Red State thinking.
Kingsolver, who was raised in nearby Kentucky, spends much of
the 400-plus pages of this book wagging her finger at poor
white people. Dellarobia, whose dreams of leaving Feathertown
to go to college were thwarted by a teen pregnancy, is her
Blue State-thinking stand-in. She's trying to shake loose
from the roots of her lethargic culture.
Her friend Dovey is another Blue Stater at heart: She works
at a grocery store meat counter and cringes when she sees
people ''with `heart attack' written all over their faces''
Over the course of a career with several bestsellers,
including The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver has built a
reputation as a skilled novelist unafraid to tackle issues of
inequality and cultural conflict. With Flight Behaviour,
however, Kingsolver appears to be turning her back on serious
literary aspirations. The writing is often turgid and
peppered with mixed metaphors and sloppy similes.''
The heels of her oxblood boots struck the waxed floor
loudly,'' Kingsolver writes when Dellarobia enters a church,
''advertising her travelling whereabouts like a GPS.''
More than anything, it's theunsubtle condescension of Flight
Behaviour that strips the work of artistic weight.
Consider Kingsolver's description of a local named Dimmit
Slaughter, who rides up the mountain on his Harley to look at
the butterflies: ''His T-shirt stretched to within an inch of
its life across his broad belly, where the letters distorted
outward like horror movie credits.''
Dimmit is one of a series of ''hick'' caricatures who share a
stage with a series of equally stereotypical Blue Staters,
including a man named Leighton Atkins who arrives in L.
L. Bean attire to pass out fliers advocating a sustainability
pledge no-one in Feathertown can possibly follow: ''Switch
some of your stocks and mutual funds to socially responsible
Kingsolver does give us a backstory about Dellarobia's
marriage to Cub that has enough moments of emotional insight
to suggest we're reading a thoughtful novel, and not an
environmentalist parable. But every time this domestic drama
gets going, the moralising quickly works its way back in,
especially after Dellarobia joins up with the scientists and
becomes a field assistant.
Much of the dialogue between Dellarobia and the lead
lepidopterist, Ovid Byron, reads like the narration from a
1960s high-school film strip, as Byron gently makes the same
point again and again about the butterflies' life cycle:
''Climate change has disrupted this system.''
Byron tries to get more locals to work with him. But
Feathertown is a place so far removed from civilization,
Kingsolver would have us believe, that it doesn't have a
single college-bound high-school pupil willing to volunteer
for his project.
From Byron, Dellarobia learns that if the butterflies don't
survive the Tennessee winter, they could become extinct. She
tells her husband, but he won't stand up to her
father-in-law, who wants to sell the Turnbow family property
- and its precious, butterfly-sheltering trees - to a logging
company. Eventually, and inevitably, Dellarobia's contact
with reasonable and educated outsiders changes the way she
thinks about herself, her children and her marriage.''
You're different, Dellarobia,'' Cub says.''
It's because of all that business up the mountain. I wish
they'd never lit down here.''
In the end, Dellarobia has to decide whether a smart,
nature-loving woman can live among the unenlightened and stay
true to herself. Given the less-than-sympathetic portrayal of
Appalachia in Flight Behaviour, few readers would blame
Dellarobia if she just decided to pack it all up and run
By Hector Tobar.