Review: The Beauty of Something Terrible in ‘Flight Behavior’

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel navigates the difficulties in understanding how something beautiful can be terrible.

When something’s an everyday fact of life, we can take it for granted without really understanding what the world would be like without it there. Christmas without snow feels wrong. Spring without flowers lacks color. The North Dakota prairie without wind loses something important.

In her 2012 novel “Flight Behavior,” Barbara Kingsolver assesses the effects of a great natural change on a small community in Tennessee. A change that brings beauty, but also bodes poorly on the world at large.

On her way to inflict damage to herself and her family in the form of an affair, Dellarobia Turnbow stumbles upon a valley filled with what she thinks is a great natural fire. In reality, Dellarobia has discovered the majority of the monarch butterfly population has taken roost in her town.

The interpretations of this phenomenon range from what her church considers a miracle, brought about by a vision Dellarobia saw: a huge economic opportunity for the financially failing town and Turnbow farm; and finally, an unmitigated natural disaster from the scientific community.

The discovery of the butterflies causes Dellarobia’s entire world to shift, leading to her own self-discovery in the face of serious beauty and serious natural consequences.

Novels that discuss problems facing the political climate, human oppression and other current issues are abundant. However, novels of the nature of Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior” rarely make it to bestseller lists or even in to the public eye.

Like war, political oppression and other issues, natural disasters are commonplace, especially in a world that’s concerned with climate change, carbon emissions and widespread natural disasters. However, its breakthrough into novels as a medium has been slow or even nonexistent.

Even if they do exist, none are nearly as eloquent as Kingsolver’s, nor do they instill fear that natural change is not a far-fetched idea of the future, but an everyday reality.

Kingsolver speaks to the average individual who may twitch when they see rampant floods or widespread droughts or heavy smog across cities, but think “that won’t happen to me” or “that’s not a result of anything other than nature.” She takes a character like Dellarobia, who considers the monarchs to be a beautiful blessing, and slowly transforms her into someone who can acknowledge that, in fact, the monarchs inhabiting a mountain in Tennessee is very, very bad for the population as a whole and bodes poorly on the state of the natural world in general.

Kingsolver weaves these threads of the novel into the larger story of Dellarobia’s character development, her family and personal drama and her past, which makes a statement about how a problem like the butterflies can translate in to the everyday tangles of life.

“Flight Behavior” is an excellently researched novel, which makes the facts Kingsolver writes about even more terrifying. In an afterword written by the author, she explains the lengths she made to accurately represent the problem of climate change and to express that an entire species can, in fact, migrate to a new location and lead to the problems she discusses in the novel. While a work of fiction, Kingsolver’s revelations are not entirely out the realm of possibility, making the novel terrifyingly truthful.

Even if Kingsolver’s novel now sounds like a sad read, I would highly recommend it as not only an important discussion into the larger discussion of climate change, but also as a well-written book that deserves recognition as part of the genre.

Each of Kingsolver’s characters are well-written, her portrayal of the setting is a respectful interpretation of small-town America and the novel itself is wonderfully written, making this a delightful and worthwhile novel.

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