Barbara Kingsolver–when she is good, she is very, very good and when she is bad she is horrid. I adore her novels The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, and The Poisonwood Bible. I have read and loved all her non-fiction, without exception–even Animal, Vegetable, Miracle which some people found too over-the-top with its recommendations about growing all of your own food, as if you don’t already have a day job. The horror is that Kingsolver occasionally has a problem with letting her fiction get preachy–it happened with the sequel to The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven. It happened most horribly at the end of Prodigal Summer. But it does not happen with her newest novel Flight Behavior, and you know why? She has ventured into what Margaret Atwood and other literary types call, ever-so-delicately, speculative fiction.
Yes! Flight Behavior is set in the near future, and that makes all the difference. That turns her tendency to preach through her plot and characters into the much more acceptable tradition of warning her readers by creating a plot that shows what could happen to some characters of whom they have grown very fond.
The main character that you’ll grow fond of is Dellarobia, a young mother. Her relentless care of her children, their extended family, their friends, and even new acquaintances gradually infects the reader, too, so we don’t want to see her hurt her nice husband, even though we eventually see that, like the butterflies that have migrated through her community, Dellarobia has got to escape the bounds of her former life:
“She felt out of control, unfixable, unless she could fold her life back into its former shape: pre-Turnbow Family Sideshow, premarriage, back to being just one kid trying to blaze her own trail. It was exhausting, to keep being sorry for everything.”
Like Virgil through hell, Dellarobia guides all the newcomers who have come because of the butterflies through her inlaws’ property and around her small town, naming the inhabitants and walking ahead on the trails. Her experience becomes the readers’ own, as “she felt abashed for the huge things she didn’t know. Mountains collapsing on people.” Even though Dellarobia is poor and with a high school education from the kind of high school where the coach is the science teacher, and even though she’s never been anywhere (“no older than twenty-five or so, and already Bonnie and Mako had ridden airplanes, moved among foreighners, walked on the ground of other countries. Dellarobia had been nowhere”), she knows this terrain better than any other.
If you know anything about how strained “Town vs. Gown” relations can get, especially in a rural area, it’s impossible to read this novel without admiring the adroit way Kingsolver lets us see what Dellarobia, our Virgil, has to offer to the people who fly in from all over the world to study the monarch migration she discovered. As an over-educated small-town resident, I was continually on the edge of my seat, wondering if Dellarobia was about to be made an object of ridicule, but the character does not allow that, even as she describes the resentment she has against the graduate students who are studying the migration: “Why did the one rare, spectacular thing in her life have to be a sickness of nature? These butterflies had been hers. She’d found them, she’d showed them to her son, in her name they were becoming beloved and important. They seemed to matter, like nothing she’d ever possessed….So how did an outsider just get to come in here and declare the whole event a giant mistake? These people had everything. Education, good looks, boots whose price tag equaled her husband’s last paycheck. Now the butterflies were theirs too.”
Kingsolver has Dellarobia’s husband Cub represent a common rural American point of view. He picks out a toy they can afford for their son “that looked to be some combination of automatic weapon and chain saw” and Dellarobia says “every redneck child’s dream!” before feeling ashamed. The way she sees the current TV show The Big Bang Theory is similarly conscious of elitism: “Cub laughed and laughed at these boy scientists in their ill-fitting pants and dim social wits. Dellarobia noticed they had a dishwasher, and a pricey-looking leather sofa the size of an Angus steer.”
Dellarobia keeps the different facets of her life apart, for a while, and Kingsolver sketches a perspective for readers so quickly that you’ll barely even notice it’s there: “they had two boys, both younger than Josefina, who sat on the floor with Cordelia in awe of her toys.” These are the few cheaply-made toys that Dellarobia and Cub have been able to buy at the Dollar Store.
What I like is the way Dellarobia refuses to take a side–the way she refuses to laugh at the ridiculous way that well-intentioned people on both sides of an argument often flail around: “Why did people ask Dear Abby how to behave, or take Johnny Midgeon’s [a Rush Limbaugh figure] word on which men in D.C. were crooks? It was the same on all sides, the yuppies watched smart-mouthed comedians who mocked people living in double-wides and listening to country music. The very word Tennessee made those audiences burst into laughter, she’d heard it. They would never come see what Tennessee was like, any more than she would get a degree in science and figure out the climate things Dr. Byron described. Nobody truly decided for themselves. There was too much information. What they actually did was scope around, decide who was looking out for their clan, and sign on for the memos on a wide array of topics.”
What I don’t like is Kingsolver’s occasional flat note in an otherwise pitch-perfect analysis from the point of view of her character: the out-of-date-word “yuppies.” Otherwise, though, I fall into line behind Dellarobia as if she could really lead me out of a hell resounding with the snickers of those who seek out snide websites and books like Awkward Family Photos, People of Wal-Mart or, as she describes them, “one of the late-night shows that archly twisted comedy with news.” When she tells her best friend, Dovey “there’s stuff you can’t see from the outside,” she’s guiding her—and us—by showing us what it’s like to be a real person who is fictional: “Real life and the things inside the TV set belonged to different universes. People on the outside could not imagine they would ever end up as monkeys in that box.”
Seamlessly worked into the fiction is a warning about the inadequacy of what has become of universal free education in the U.S. today, a warning that those who came from educated families sometimes do not really understand, since they and their children can know better (most of the parents I talk to work hard to make sure that their children do not suffer the effects of “no child left behind,” or, as I’ve heard it called, “no child gets ahead”). In Flight Behavior (the title of which must refer to public schools as much as to monarch migration), when the head of the monarch study, Dr. Ovid Byron, asks Dellarobia about her high school, “he seemed doubtful of her story” about the coach who didn’t teach much biology, and asks “Is this typical of high schools in this area?” Her answer is telling in its lack of assumption: “well, I only went to the one.” It reminds me of the local parent of a child in John Freshwater’s middle school science class who told me that she wasn’t as worried about her own child bringing home a handout depicting dinosaurs and humans living at the same time as she was about the children whose parents might not even know it was wrong.
The education theme turns, in the second half of the novel, on why Dellarobia is upset with Dr. Byron for not trying to be a hero: “I’m not here to save monarchs,” he says. “I’m trying to read what they are writing on our wall.” To which Dellarobia asks “If you’re not, who is?” She gives some possible answers, guiding readers to think of themselves. Then Dr. Byron says “Science doesn’t tell us what we should do. It only tells what is” and Dellarobia replies “that must be why people don’t like it.” As the conversation progresses, she says “maybe you’re writing us off, thinking we won’t get it. You should start with kindergartners and work your way up” (as he has with Dellarobia’s kindergarten-age son). But he says “It’s too late for that.” In the novel, it might be. Out of the hell of this future, though, in which monarchs don’t migrate far enough south to keep them from freezing in a Tennessee winter, it might not.
Also woven into the fiction—and here is where it gets a bit heavy-handed—is a plea for more scientists to explain what they do and why. When Dr. Byron says, pompously “We cannot jump to conclusions. All we can do is measure and count. That is the task of science” then “it seemed to Dellarobia that the task of science was a good deal larger than that. Someone had to explain things. If men like Ovid Byron were holding back, the Tina Ultners [TV reporters] of this world were going to take their shots.” A related plea, in the most heavy-handed part of the novel, is for energy conservationist crusaders to tailor their pamphlets to their audience; it does no good to tell people who have never had the resources to get on an airplane to “fly less.”
Dellarobia has one main piece of advice, in her role as a parent/guide through the hell that the world could become: “Think about what’s coming at you later on.” But like the words of the scientists, this is not enough to make people want to avoid even a fate they can see all around them. Dellarobia makes the kind of spurious argument against letting her children believe in Santa that earnest and well-meaning people all over the world use to justify their sense of being in absolute charge of their offspring: “ will you explain to me why people encourage delusional behavior in children….At what age do you cross over the line and say, ‘Now I’ll face reality?’” I find this kind of earnestness disingenuous; someday your kid will grow up and discover that you don’t know everything, even if you were a good guide for a long time.
Ultimately a fictional character is not a guide for what to do in real life. Kingsolver’s website features this quotation: “Literature is one of the few kinds of writing in the world that does not tell you what to buy, want, see, be, or believe. It’s more like conversation, raising new questions and moving you to answer them for yourself.”
The ending of Flight Behavior will leave its readers with new questions, the broadest of which is what you can do to make sure the world doesn’t end up in the kind of shape it’s in as this novel begins.
I got an advance copy of this novel from HarperCollins. Where are you going to get your copy?