Culture & Conversation

Butterfly Effect

Welcome back to Barbara Kingsolver country. You know, the Appalachia of the mind and soul. Dellarobia Turnbow is climbing a mountain – literally – to escape her life. She knows she is risking losing her marriage, breaking up her family, throwing away every certain thing she has, and what she feels is “one part rapture.” At first glance, this can look like flight behaviour, although eventually – when we have seen her face down both emotional and environmental disaster — we realize it is fight, instead.

Kingsolver may be the quintessential American novelist. She writes clear-eyed and respectfully about women, working class people, those who work the land and worry about paying their bills. Her characters are ordinary folk who elevate “ordinary” by striving to do the right thing. What is a clearer articulation of the American myth – and possibly the most hopeful part of the American reality – than that?

In Flight Behavior Kingsolver brings her early training as a biologist to bear on the large and small effects of climate change, using the real and present threat of the extinction of the monarch butterfly as her case study. The terrible danger posed by climate change is a story that needs urgently to be made vivid to a mass audience, and she uses her novelist’s skills to give us the very, very big picture by building up the smallest details of ordinary lives. Not by shocking us with Hurricane Sandy-type devastation, but by revealing the slow accumulation of change in a place: the rainy seasons that ruin a crop and threaten the mortgage, leading people to log out the forests that were keeping the mud from sliding down the slope above their houses. She also does a bang-up job of teaching some basic principles of the scientific approach, specifically of ecology, so subtly interwoven with the story that you might not even notice.

In spite of the almost kitsch, aw-shucks tone of the narrative, the reader is soon stuck on quirky Dellarobia, her acerbic mother-in-law Hester, her cute, smart kids. The natural world in which they live, the sheep on their farm, the February-blooming “harbinger flowers” are all lovingly described, with a distinct and refreshing lack of romanticization (“That’s Reggie,” Dellarobia says, referring to the lamb dinner).

Typically for a Kingsolver story, many threads tie Dellarobia to the wider world. Her discovery of the monarch colony on family land brings a tall, dark scientist with a Caribbean lilt into their lives, and with him an ethnically mixed crew of college students who astonish Dellarobia with their unfamiliar gear and strange middle-class assumptions. She gets a temporary job helping them count the butterflies, gradually doing more in their makeshift lab and gaining confidence in herself. (One of the pleasures of this book is the way Dellarobia’s intelligence shines through her lack of education.) She also meets a Mexican family, dispossessed and driven north by the same landslides that devastated parts of the monarchs’ ancestral roosting grounds, a great detail that puts human faces on the distant disasters that climate change has already wrought.

In an author’s note at the end of the book, Kingsolver explains that the Tennessee monarch colony she describes in Flight Behavior does not actually exist. She has, in effect, embedded a hypothesis about one possible future effect of climate change in a novel about one woman’s coming to knowledge and a kind of personal power. That is to say, she has written a book of science fiction, in the very best way: she has used her scientist’s eye and her novelist’s eye together to give us a new, compelling perspective on the most pressing issue of our time.

Elise Moser’s second book, a young adult novel called Lily and Taylor, will appear in the fall from Groundwood Books.


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