Flight Behavior: Science in Fiction?

My aunt once described Barbara Kingsolver’s writing as “preachy,” but as a card-carrying member of the choir to which Kingsolver preaches, I love her books.  Flight Behavior, her newest novel, is in the same vein as earlier environmental-ish novel Prodigal Summer, a beautifully written, thoughtful novel with powerful environmental science overtones, centered on a strong female protagonist.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a twenty-something housewife, living in rural Tennessee and ready to start an affair with the telephone man.  On her way up the mountain at the back of her family’s property to meet her soon-to-be lover, the sight of millions of overwintering monarch butterflies shocks her back to her life as a housewife.  When her in-laws start to discuss logging the woods to make ends meet, Dellarobia convinces them to explore the area first.  Their butterfly sightings, shared with the town, their church, and the media, bring Dr. Ovid Byron, a scientist who studies monarch migration, to town.  Ovid moves onto the Turnbows’ land in his camper and sets up a laboratory in their sheep barn.  He hires Dellarobia as a lab assistant and sets out to study what would make the monarchs overwinter in Tennessee rather than their typical site in the Mexican mountains (spoiler alert: it is probably climate change).

In the characters of Ovid and his postdoc, Pete, I really appreciated Kingsolver’s background as a scientist.  True to scientist form, they obsessively focus on their work, and Pete especially holds cynical views about the role of journalism as it relates to science:

“A journalist’s job is to collect information,” Ovid said to Pete.

“Nope,” Pete said.  “That’s what we do.  It’s not what they do.”

The rest of this scene contains a cooperative rant between Pete and Ovid about the public’s unawareness of climate change and the responsibility of the media, whose objective Pete says is “‘to shore up the prevailing view of their audience and sponsors.'”  In the characters of these scientists, and in the gradual expansion of Dellarobia’s understanding of climate change’s relationship to the butterflies’ plight, Kingsolver not-so-subtlely exhorts the reader to care about our changing climate.

At this point in the book, I did start to feel as though Kingsolver was preaching to me from the pulpit of environmentalism.  Though I am not turned off by the sermon, I wondered what readers who are maybe not as convinced about the realities of climate change think.  The science, though invented, is plausible and based on real events.  Preston, Dellarobia’s kindergartener, makes friends with a Mexican immigrant classmate whose family has left their destroyed mountain town adjacent to the former butterfly wintering site because of mudslides caused by a combination of logging and abnormal amounts of rain.  Flooding and mudslides, most likely the result of our warming planet, occurred in February 2010 in the real life town Angangueo, Mexico, close to the actual monarch wintering site.  But in spite of the real life basis for her story, does Kingsolver (or any writer) expect to be reaching readers, winning hearts and minds for science?

As the story moves forward, though, the tone balances out.  Kingsolver still keeps the frightening aspects of climate change on the mind of the reader, but she highlights a much more nuanced and important issue by incorporating into the story the real life divide between scientists/environmentalists and people like the Turnbows.  For instance, Dellarobia and Ovid again discuss the differences between what her people hear and what scientists have agreed upon regarding climate change:

Ovid:  These men on the radio, I assume, are nonscientists.  Why would people buy snake oil when they want medicine?

Dellarobia:  That’s what I’m trying to tell you.  You guys aren’t popular.  Maybe your medicine’s too bitter.  Or you’re not selling to us.  Maybe you’re writing us off, thinking we won’t get it.  You should start with kindergartners and work your way up.

Ovid:  It’s too late for that.  Believe me.

Dellarobia:  Don’t say that, ‘too late.’  I hate that.  I’ve got my kids to think about.

With this short conversation, Kingsolver illustrates perfectly how far apart experts and the public sometimes exist.  Just as someone can choose to listen to a nonscientist radio host about the climate, a scientist can choose to believe that reaching out to kindergartners would be ineffective.  When both parties make assumptions about the other, especially in the case of climate change, we all lose.

Kingsolver takes this point even further with a scene between Dellarobia and an environmental activist.  He hangs around the butterflies with a low impact pledge that he asks people to sign.  As he goes through it with Dellarobia and realizes that she is already doing almost everything on the list (combining errands to reduce gas use, eating little red meat, replacing the engine in their truck for a third time) to stretch the limited money her family has to the limit, he is dumbfounded and she never sees him again.  The responsibility for bridging the divide belongs to everyone, but here Kingsolver calls upon those of us who think we are doing the best for the environment to reconsider.

I struggled slightly at the end of Flight Behavior to understand what felt like a too quick, too neat tying up of plot lines.  The strengths of this novel, however, Kingsolver’s beautiful imagery and her persuasive message to all of us regarding the need for collaboration and communication about our earth, make it well worth reading.

For another thoughtful discussion of Flight Behavior, see this NPR commentary by Tania Lombrozo and the accompanying comments.

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