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Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about life, the natural world and writing.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Book review: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver trained as a biologist, she's passionate about environmental issues, and she sure can craft a sentence. Flight Behavior (2012, HarperCollins) is as compelling as it is informative. Dellarobia Turnbow, a young mother in Tennessee, finds a new monarch butterfly wintering area and her tiny world, constricted by poverty, babies, a lack of education, and a diffident husband has the door thrown open to unexpected winds from outside. The story weaves together the heart-breaking science of climate change and the heart-break of a weak marriage. Salvation for the monarchs remains unlikely in this fictional disaster, but Dellarobia may get her chance.

The climate change theme is information-dense without being (oh, dreaded word!) "preachy" and this is an excellent way to catch up on the biological aspects of this issue. I've been tracking this for years and didn't flinch. Less familiar to me was how people live in these United States in rural poverty--bad housing, bad food, bad schools. In a brilliant scene, Dellarobia has to laugh at an earnest enviro's plea to reduce and reuse, turn down the thermostat, etc. Lack of money long ago made those decisions for her. Kingsolver represents Dellarobia's world with respect and understanding as well as with sympathy.

Dellarobia's desperation over her lot in life is palpable and touching. The first third of the book establishes her world and the "miracle" that disrupts it, but this moves slowly. Flight Behavior is a novel more to be savored than rushed.

The charms of this story include the varied characters: relatives, a best friend, scientists, and the unusual people attracted to any unusual event. No stereotypes here of either rural eccentrics or over-educated nerds, no one who does not carry their own gravitas and produce a surprise or two. Then there is Kingsolver's enviable way with language. "She could see that his old generosity was still there, but was sometimes being held captive by despair, like a living thing held underwater." You'll have to search hard to find a weak sentence.

Kingsolver created an appealing heroine in Dellarobia: bright and funny, a kind and dedicated mother who struggles to keep her marriage alive. I have to ask, however, if instead of a petite red-haired cutie, could the story have worked with a big, homely woman? Must all our heroines be beautiful winners?

A big-hearted, sad, gorgeous book. I'll be reading it again.

It also has good information about raising sheep.
A version of this review was also posted in Goodreads. The book was a Christmas gift.