Review: Life upended by climate change, lepidopterist in Barbara Kingsolver's 'Flight Behavior'

Published Nov. 3, 2012

No doubt Barbara Kingsolver intended to deliver an urgent message in her splendid new novel, Flight Behavior.

But she couldn't have anticipated quite how timely it would be. After a week in which a massive hurricane wrapped in a winter storm wreaked havoc on a huge swath of the Northeast, it's a little eerie to read a passage in which her book's narrator is learning about global climate change from a scientist who lists some of its possible results: "Hurricanes reaching a hundred miles inland, wind speeds we've never seen."

That narrator, Dellarobia Turnbow, doesn't want to believe it — just like a lot of other people. But in the course of Flight Behavior, Dellarobia faces many challenges to how she thinks the world works — and who she thinks she is.

At 28, she has lived her entire life near Feathertown, a small eastern Tennessee town in the Appalachians. As kids, she and her best friend, Dovey, planned to go to college, preferably as far away from their hometown as possible, but for Dellarobia, pregnancy and marriage at age 17 put the brakes on that.

As Flight Behavior opens, she is on the verge of having an affair. Her husband is devoted to her, but Cub Turnbow — so called because his father's nickname is Bear — is still a boy in some ways, and as Dellarobia, whose sense of humor is her armor, says tartly, "you could run out of gas on boyish, that was the thing. A message that should be engraved on every woman's wedding band."

He is also still very much dominated by his parents, and the fact that Cub and Dellarobia live in a house on her in-laws' farm makes them inescapable. Running a small family farm, which means one season of weird weather (and there seem to be a lot of those lately) can ruin them financially, leaves the Turnbows broke most of the time.

Bright and restless, Dellarobia is painfully dissatisfied with her life but doesn't know what to do about it; she can't even consider leaving her beloved two kids, kindergartener Preston and toddler Cordelia. But she is marching up the mountain behind her house, on the way to meet a man she's been flirting with, when she's stopped in her tracks by a miracle:

"The forest blazed with its own internal flame. 'Jesus,' she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren't that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense. The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. 'Jesus God,' she said again. No words came to her that seemed sane. Trees turned to fire, a burning bush."

Those mountainsides covered in waves of orange turn out not to be supernatural. What Dellarobia sees is monarch butterflies, millions upon millions of them. It's an unprecedented phenomenon in that neck of the woods and quickly draws attention, first from local media who, to Dellarobia's irritation, dub her Our Lady of the Butterflies, and soon from media worldwide and from tourists wanting to see the butterflies for themselves.

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Most significantly, the insects draw the attention of Ovid Byron, a dashing lepidopterist who has spent his career studying monarchs and their amazing migrations, which stretch all the way across North America. The mass of monarchs Dellarobia discovered is normal — in the mountains of southern Mexico. But the butterflies aren't there, and the question is why they're in Tennessee.

Ovid and his team of graduate students set up in a camper next to Dellarobia's house, with a lab in the unused dairy barn. She finds herself fascinated by their work and by Ovid, who does something few other people in her life have ever done: talk to her like she's an intelligent person. Before long, he's hired her to help with the research, and what she learns (and earns) changes her life.

Flight Behavior is Kingsolver's seventh novel and one of her best. Always an engaging writer who crafts believable, often surprising characters, in this book she returns to her roots in several ways. She grew up in rural Kentucky and for the last decade or so has lived on a farm in western Virginia with her husband (a professor of environmental science) and two daughters, an experience recounted in her 2007 memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Kingsolver is also a scientist; she earned degrees in biology from DePauw University and the University of Arizona before becoming a bestselling author. (Her books have won the Orange Prize, a James Beard Award and the Dayton Peace Prize, among other honors.) In Flight Behavior she brings all those experiences — rural background, marriage and motherhood, scientific reasoning — together to create a rich and compelling story.

Flight Behavior deals in large issues, but Kingsolver addresses them on the personal level. In this book, climate change is not just something politicians and pundits argue over, but something that blasts the neighbors' peach orchard and threatens the Turnbows' sheep. Its economic complexities are painfully real: Bear wants to sell the butterfly-covered forest to a timber company for clear-cutting, and they may lose the farm if he doesn't. Its implications for the future aren't just theory, they're something Dellarobia comes to think of whenever she looks into her children's faces.

For Dellarobia, knowledge — the science that opens her mind like a flower — is hardly an unmixed blessing. It leaves her, like the monarchs, navigating a perilous, promising new world.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.