Kingsolver's 'Flight Behavior': portents of change on an Appalachian farm
Barbara Kingsolver's new novel, "Flight Behavior," tells the story of an Appalachian family that confronts the implications of climate change on its home ground.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper, 448 pp., $28.99
A tenuous state of grace — born of catastrophe and borne on wings — descends upon a family of impoverished Appalachian sheep farmers in Barbara Kingsolver's new novel, "Flight Behavior."
Dellarobia Turnbow is the stay-at-home mom of two young children and the disaffected wife of a lumpish sheep farmer, living on his dad's land. She is the first to stumble upon an enigma that rocks not only her family, but extends to her community and to the outside world.
She had been hiking up the mountain behind her farm, heading to a seldom-used turkey blind for an illicit first tryst with a randy and willing telephone lineman. But deep in the forest, she comes upon a spectacle of writhing branches and sudden orange outbursts spiraling silently into the cold autumn sky. Vanity had prompted her to leave her eyeglasses back at the house, and without them she cannot clearly discern the scene, but the disquieting episode of marmalade-colored tornadoes and animated woods is enough to throw her off course: Dellarobia retreats from the mountain and from her date with adultery as if she had been chastised by her own burning bush.
Just a few weeks later, Dellarobia's father-in-law faces a looming deadline for a balloon payment on his farm-equipment loan, and he entertains the idea of selling off the logging rights to his uplands. Without spilling the beans as to how she knows what she knows (and because she still isn't entirely sure what she saw), Dellarobia steps out of her role as submissive daughter-in-law long enough to urge her in-laws to walk the land and reconsider: "It could be something special up there."
Begrudgingly, they take her advice, and what they find has an impact with far-reaching consequences.
"Flight Behavior" is an intricate story that entwines considerations of faith and faithlessness, inquiry, denial, fear and survival in gorgeously conceived metaphor.
Specifically, it is a novel about global climate change and how it comes home to roost in one rural community in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. In the story, it has been a winter of unprecedented weather conditions. It is also the winter of Dellarobia's discontent.
But as she becomes involved in a phenomenon much larger than her tightly circumscribed life, Dellarobia learns to articulate her too-long-quashed desires in dealings with her husband, hidebound in-laws and a conservative church on the one hand, with a group of visiting scientists, led by the charismatic Professor Ovid Byron, on the other.
Kingsolver juxtaposes science and religion, tradition and deviation, and arrivals and departures, using incisive but sympathetic character development. Even Dellarobia's initially trenchant point of view ("Good night. She knew she should be patient with those underly endowed with intelligence, but could everyone at once be below average?") gradually shifts to having compassion for those whose lives are stunted by economic or educational paucity.
Nonetheless, the story ultimately comes down to starkly-drawn choices: whether to cheat, whether to log, whether to speak up, whether to stay.
Take care not to rush this read — the more attention you invest in "Flight Behavior," the more fulfillment you'll derive. Kingsolver has constructed a deeply affecting microcosm of a phenomenon that is manifesting in many different tragic ways, in communities and ecosystems all around the globe. This is a fine and complex novel.
Barbara McMichael lives
and writes in Burien.