19 February 2013

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

Posted by Callan Bentley

I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Flight Behavior over the weekend.

It’s certainly cut from the same cloth as Kingsolver’s other work. If you liked Prodigal Summer and her many Arizona novels, you’ll probably like this one, too. Similarities include: beautiful writing, a focus on the relationships women have to their families, friends, and strangers, and the powerful insights we can gain by associating with nature.

What sets it apart in my mind (and makes it worthy of discussing here on this blog) are two things: (a) the subject matter, which is climate change, and (b) an examination of the cultural divide in the United States that predisposes our rural citizens to discount the reality of climate change.

The plot (spoiler alert for something that gets revealed in the second chapter): climate change somehow causes most of the main population of Monarch butterflies to divert from their usual roost in Mexico and instead amass and overwinter on a mountaintop in southern Appalachia. Suddenly, a family of undereducated rural sheep farmers has the fate of a species in their backyard. The butterflies are a potent symbol for the perturbed global ecosystem, at once massive and delicate. Attracted by the phenomenon, tourists and scientists drop into the story as ingredients drop into a stew. Reactions then take place between those ingredients: that’s the stuff the novel’s made from. The protagonist, a spitfire with flaming orange hair to symbolize her inherent kinship with the butterflies, is mentored by a thoughtful ecologist. She grows to a new awareness of climate change that goes beyond the conservative talk radio her husband prefers, and in other ways too, that I shouldn’t reveal if you’re going to read the book.

Much of the novel is given over to sympathetic description of the conditions under which rural Tennesseans live. Kingsolver lives in such a community, and she paints a portrait of people for whom money is scarce, kinship is highly valued, and education is pretty much a farce (for most) or an unrealized fantasy (for some). Church is a major source of counsel, eating out means the local Dairy Queen equivalent, and Christmas shopping takes place at the dollar store. It isn’t easy to figure out what’s really going on when your library gets shuttered and the TV “news” crews value superficial visuals over deep but complicated stories. It’s not easy living in such a situation, and Kingsolver facilitates our understanding of the Appalachian farmers’ conditions without making fun of anyone. The term “redneck” is uttered once, but for a novel of 433 pages, that’s quite an outlier. These decent, flawed folks (like anyone, anywhere) have been vicitimized by their schools, where “science” class is taught by a distinterested basketball coach, and by modern American culture, which teaches consumerism and indignant rejection of outsider viewpoints.  Growing up in this milieu, the protagonist has been taught to be wary of any mention of global warming, and the “arc” of her character development is to learn to accept it as reality, and to find motivation there for dealing with the challenges of her own personal life.

This is the point of Flight Behavior, it would seem: to bridge the gap between red state cultural mores and the scientific understanding that our home planet’s climate system has been destabilized in a fundamental way. In this way, it’s a piece of climate change propaganda in the same sense that Michael Crichton’s State of Fear was, though at the opposite end of the spectrum of argumentation. (It even has an “Author’s Note” at the end, just like State of Fear, though significantly shorter.) Kingsolver’s writing this fictional account appears aimed at “converting” the Fox News illiterati to a more empirically based understanding of climate change. And, I think, she’s also trying to appeal to her intellectual, liberal readership (most of her readership would fall into that category, I’d guess) by asking them not to hold climate change denial personally against their conservative neighbors.

Another aspect of the novel that spoke to me is the way the protagonist raises her son. He’s five or six, and has an inherent interest in nature and an admiration for the scientists working up the hill from his house. Given that I’m raising a boy of my own, and given that I hope to instill in him a respect for nature, if not an outright fascination with the natural world, I found myself chewing on the character’s parenting choices. How do we make children value natural systems? Where’s the balance between discouraging acorn fights and encouraging the nursing of ailing insects? How much information is too much information when your kindergartener wants to read the sheep birthing manual?

The novel has been criticized, justifiably I think, for too much exposition coming out of the mouths of its characters – the main scientist character sounds a bit like an IPCC report at times, but I’m going to grant Kingsolver some leeway on that one. She’s got perspective to impart, and it’s got to get accomplished somehow. People talking is how information gets transferred. In one scene, an academic folklorist character makes an excellent point, that once people have incorporated climate change denial into their personal sense of identity, if you attempt to convince them with data and logic, they will interpret it as a personal attack. Numerical observations and scientific validation are irrelevant when the other side of the conversation thinks you’re out to skewer their patriotism. That stuck with me: it’s the gulf we have to bridge if we’re going to get anywhere in dealing with climate change: not a scientific gulf, but a case of something more fundamental: how the participants in the conversation see themselves.

I enjoyed the read – during a time in my life when I don’t get much sleep and find my intellectual attention span temporally limited by my baby, this novel had a strong enough ‘stickiness” to keep me picking it up whenever I got a moment – during a bottle feeding of my son, or in those precious quiet minutes lying in bed before I too fall sleep.