From Barbara Kingsolver’s official site: “Barbara Kingsolver was born in 1955, and grew up in rural Kentucky. She earned degrees in biology from DePauw University and the University of Arizona, and has worked as a freelance writer and author since 1985. At various times in her adult life she has lived in England, France, and the Canary Islands, and has worked in Europe, Africa, Asia, Mexico, and South America. She spent two decades in Tucson, Arizona, before moving to southwestern Virginia where she currently resides.” See her complete bibliography here.
An award-winning author, Kingsolver has a vast amount of experience, including writing and traveling as a child, entering college under a piano scholarship but switching her major to biology, working as a lab tech and teacher while in grad school, scientific writing and journalism after completing her Master’s, farming, further travel, gardening, raising poultry and Icelandic sheep – and, of course, her many years of writing poetry, novels, and nonfiction. Her world-wide experiences are nothing to scoff at, but what is most appealing about the author is that she is a humble world citizen, concerned about the planet and social justice. Like many great authors, Barbara Kingsolver’s lifelong wonder of the world comes through in powerful stories. I encourage readers to check out all her books, as they are significant works dealing with nature and justice in various places she’s lived, from the Arizona desert to the Belgian Congo to the Appalachian Mountains.
Kingsolver has been mindful of the environment all her life. Her books are seeped heavily in themes such as local farming, wilderness survival, the great outdoors, and natural places. In this article, I’ll look at her novel Flight Behavior, which was applauded for being a contemporary fiction dealing with climate change, whereas many other novels in the same vein are futuristic. And even though there is always imagination in fiction, Kingsolver’s novel reflects the actuality of Monarch migrations. She explores the here and now.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Flight Behavior is personal. It’s no secret that I research how climate change and fiction interact, but not all novels I’ve read are ones I feel very moved by. This one, I was. The novel is set in Feathertown, Tennessee, a fictional town that would be near real places I’ve spent a great deal of time in, especially as a child and teenager. I recently watched a YouTube talk with Jeff VanderMeer and Lorna Crozier (I’ve been fortunate to chat with both authors in the past), and they discussed how childhood places inspired their writing. I was motivated by that conversation, and think Barbara Kingsolver also did well with Flight Behavior when it comes to the matters of place and memory.
My childhood place was an area of the world where many people in my family came from – they had settled in Virginia after coming over from Scotland and Ireland, and then scattered into the eastern Kentucky and Tennessee hills. From the time I was a baby, this area of the country was our “home” to travel to, since my parents both had roots there; though Dad came from Louisville – his ancestors were Grayson County farmers – Mom was a bonafide child from the hills of Kentucky. She was born in a log cabin in a holler, and when I was a child I hiked by the cabin often. It was next to a rushing creek, and leading over the creek from her cabin to the holler was an old rickety bridge from which she had fallen once and broken her arm.
We took a trip back to that holler a few years ago, and everything had changed. The holler was no longer a dirt path. Now it was a modern road, and the old homes had all been torn down to make room for new modern houses. Mom’s cabin was gone. Even the cliffs edging the mountains and flanking one side of the holler were gone. Kudzu, an invasive vine, now covered hillsides everywhere. The precious wildflowers were gone in the holler, and so was the old woman at the end of the road who used to let us pick black walnuts in her yard. Her simple country house was gone too, and in its place a fancy modern house.
It was a sad moment for our entire family, as we hadn’t been to that area for a long time, ever since Mammaw and Pappaw died, both fairly young. The mountains had been flattened, though I’m not sure why. It seems to have had to do with housing development instead of mountaintop coal mining. But I recall the sweet wonder of the old Appalachian mountains: The southern way of speech, the long tales my pappaw told while we sat on his large and summery front porch, the best food on the planet (shucky beans, cornbread, apple cake), the lonely sounds of distant highways and trains echoing through the hills, the surrounding pine-covered mountains that were wild with foliage overflowing to the old hollers – where on cliff sides, icicles formed in winter and tiny waterfalls in summer. These things are my strong memories of place, and I summon them quite often in my own fiction.
Looking past the personal experience I felt when reading Flight Behavior, I wondered how others were affected. One question that I often have to authors I interview is: Do you get much feedback from readers who say that your novel changed them in some way? The answers vary, but most authors agree that readers say they have an increased awareness of various ecological crises, including the climate catastrophe we are undergoing. Can this effect real change? One can only hope. In a “Climate Change and Storytelling” panel that I participated in on Earth Day 2017, at the West Vancouver Memorial Library, one of the questions was: Can fiction really change people’s minds? Among the panelists, we agreed that:
When we read fiction, sometimes it speaks to us at a level in which our heart gets involved. That emotional reaction is important. The type of fiction that has impact does so without necessarily the intent of the author. If the author writes a story that the reader likes, it can change the reader, in a small or large way.
So the emotional reaction is personal among readers, but some authors are superb at affecting the reader deeply. Kingsolver is an effective writer, not only for someone like me, who has history in the same place as where Flight Behavior takes place, but for others as well, regardless of where they’re from. I think readers are affected so much by this story because she makes characters and situations real, without the glossy coverup meant to romanticize them – in other words, she builds an ordinariness of life to which we utterly relate.
In the novel, Kingsolver’s heart-warming scenes are marked with lively and often humorous dialogue in circumstances that some might think of as mundane: a baby’s antics in a high chair, a conversation between two friends texting, the marital ho-hums between two adults. These everyday happenings that speak to the reader’s heart take place under the umbrella of a fabulous event, something that seems like a miracle: hundreds of thousands of beautiful orange monarch butterflies landing in Feathertown.
According to the New York Times:
Her subject is both intimate and enormous, centered on one woman, one family, one small town no one has ever heard of – until Dellarobia stumbles into a life-altering journey of conscience. How do we live, Kingsolver asks, and with what consequences, as we hurtle toward the abyss in these times of epic planetary transformation? And make no mistake about it, the stakes are that high. Post-apocalyptic times, and their singular preoccupation with survival, look easy compared with this journey to the end game. Yet we must also deal with the pinching boots of everyday life.
The main character, Dellarobia, is a young mother in a shaky marriage. She’s on the edge of tradition, lost and lonely, wanting to have an affair, unsure of where life is leading her. Like a butterfly, she transforms beneath the auspice of this miracle of monarchs – but that umbrella is really climate change, not a divine event. The reason the butterflies have migrated to Feathertown is that, due to global warming, their normal winter habitat in Mexico has flooded and they need to change their traditional route in order to roost and survive. When scientist Ovid Byron arrives to the mountain to study the butterflies, Dellarobia is fascinated by his exotic appearance as well as by his different world view, something she increasingly latches onto.
The New York Times points out:
Do global warming and intimations of doomsday tax the storytelling at times? Yes. But they share these pages with smaller-scale, deliciously human moments. Without overreaching she delivers line after line that can be at once beautiful, casual, wry, offbeat. Whether she is describing Dellarobia’s malcontented, ambitious in-laws or the environmentally earnest rubberneckers or Feathertown’s rumpled young preacher, she never employs, as she says of one character, the “ordinary tools of contempt.”
Kingsolver beautifully explores the conservative culture existing in some pockets of rural southern America, without pointing fingers at climate change deniers. Instead, she underscores the difficulty of a culture in transition. The New Yorker has a wonderful piece about Flight Behavior, which discusses a changing world as science and religion contradict each other but can learn to coexist:
“We all take information from sources we trust,” Kingsolver said. “Church communities are extremely important in the area where I live, and they’re not necessarily what outsiders picture when they say ‘Bible Belt.’ The Green Church movement is one of the rare places where the environmental conversation is successfully reaching across these difficult cultural divides.”
At one point in the book, Dellarobia tells her farmer husband, Cub, that “a lot of things are messed up” because of climate change. “Weather is the Lord’s business,” he replies. And yet it is Cub who puts up a fight when his father wants to log the forest hollow in which the butterflies have taken shelter.
This reminds me of a story Mom recently told me. We occasionally chat on Friday nights over red wine, and I learn incredible things from her, like old memories she has of the Kentucky hills. When I told her about how much my cousins and I loved climbing one mountain range after another when we were kids (the adults were usually occupied with their own things), Mom said she had done the same thing as a child. I had never known, until recently, that my dad’s mom belonged to a sorority in Louisville that opened the elementary school house my mother went to, years before my parents ever met, and started a tree-planting program for the school children, which Mom took part in. As a kid, she and her schoolmates planted pine trees on hills that had been environmentally devastated. When I was older, I remember Dad showing me the hills with those now-grown trees – but at the time I didn’t know his mother had helped start that program.
Mom was raised in a somewhat conservative household, though her mother was religious and her father, not so much. I still remember the dirty-eye Mammaw gave him when he didn’t go to church on Sunday. I have no clue what my grandparents would have thought of global warming if they were alive today, but they lived close to the land, so respected the land and ensured that trees were planted, water was clean, air was clean – as much as possible. The desperation of needing a job, in my pappaw’s time, however, meant he worked as a coal miner. But when I listened to Pappaw Collins’ stories, I knew he was deeply in awe of nature. He helped me with numerous 4H projects that focused on wildlife. He knew the behaviors, appearances, and many facts about flora and fauna native to the Appalachians. It felt right that Kingsolver addressed this fundamental issue of climate-change deniers, but put them into the light of real people going through, well, a metamorphosis.
The title Flight Behavior, and the practical metaphor of butterflies in a novel about people resisting, or adjusting to, climate change, is perfect, really. Monarch butterflies in diapause make a 3,000-mile round-trip migration only once. They go to the same areas, and sometimes even exact trees, that their parents and grandparents went to, without, of course, ever having been there before. A monarch has an innate sense (due to shorter days and changing light, fluctuating temperatures, and healthy host plants populations – and research has explored how antennae help keep time) of when to begin migration and where to go. Compare this journey to that taken by people who have learned information passed on from generation to generation, involving a slow-moving ideology, in a drastically changing world. At some point, they will transition too, and Kingsolver’s novel explores how while telling a wonderful story.
(Top image: Photo by Steven Hopp, downloaded from KCRW.)
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.