Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Book Review: Flight Behavior

Book Title: Flight Behavior

Author: Barbara Kingsolver

Date: 2012

Publisher: Harper Collins

Length: 436 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06-212426-5

Quote: "The drooping branches seemed bent to the breaking point under their weight. Of butterflies."

One of several good things that can be said for Barbara Kingsolver is that she doesn't write mere romances. Each of her novels is unique. Even when she turns to science fiction, we knew we could count on Kingsolver for a science fiction story like no other.

Like Margaret Atwood or Suzette Haden Elgin, Kingsolver has enough scientific training to make her science fiction worth reading. So how does Flight Behavior compare with The Handmaid's Tale or Native Tongue? Well...Native Tongue was written as an actual science experiment, drawing on hot news stories of the day to involve talented students in using and teaching a constructed language; The Handmaid's Tale is a cautionary tale about a hypothetical future based solidly in the real world; and Flight Behavior is a deliciously complex and well-balanced fantasy about a hypothetical future that's not really even supported by its underlying theories. If you read Flight Behavior with this in mind, you can enjoy it.

In the real world, monarch butterflies winter in butterfly groves in Mexico. Kingsolver has seen the butterfly groves. In the real world, a town among butterfly groves was destroyed by flooding, but the butterflies continued to winter on the hills above the town. In Kingsolver's imagination, displaced monarch butterflies decide to spend a strangely warm winter in a fictional town in Tennessee.

Why Tennessee? If the real butterflies weren't able to cross the Gulf and winter in Mexico, wouldn't they go to Florida? Not dramatic enough, I expect. Texas, conceivably? Why Tennessee instead of Texas? I'm guessing that that would be because Kingsolver is a native of Kentucky, who married a Virginian and currently lives in Virginia; her characters have Virginia names, accents, manners, and attitudes, and the weather phenomena she reports occurred in Virginia in January through April 2011, so Tennessee was as far as an imagination as reality-based as Kingsolver's could move them. But that's the flaw in this novel. If global climate change had really happened, Tennessee weather would resemble Mexico's, Texas's, or Florida's more than Virginia's in 2011. You have to suspend disbelief to enjoy the story, and fortunately that's easy.

For blurring purposes, both Kingsolver and her characters are vaguely described as living "in southern Appalachia." I cry shame on Kingsolver for that; she's been in Virginia long enough to know that Appalachia is a smallish town, such that, if you vividly describe the details of a farm in southern Appalachia, you're giving out its street address--and neither she nor her characters can be found there.

The butterfly displacement has never happened. It probably never will happen. It's worth reading, though, because Kingsolver's vivid visual memory superimposes a remarkably clear image of butterfly groves on a remarkably clear image of the Blue Ridge Mountains with breathtaking, surreal effects.

The next question some local lurkers will ask, when any novel is about mountain people, will be: How "awful" are the hillbillies? Because, when you start blathering imprecisely about "Appalachia," you're calling up that awful old early twentieth century Socialist dystopian fiction image, based on the exaggerations the poorest and trashiest family in some town told some welfare worker in the 1930s. All the buildings are falling apart, all the people are too drunk and stupid and shiftless to care, all the children are malnourished but most of them are doomed in any case because they're the products of incest, etc. etc. ad nauseam, and when you're actually living in one of the towns that's been caricatured this way, nauseam sets in fast. The places where you and I live have very little in common with this fantasy of "Appalachia," which this web site calls AppaLAYshia; they never have had much in common with the fantasy.

Even the town called Appalachia never had much in common with the fantasy. That's because the fantasy was always fairly well detached from reality. In what was called the "Socialist Realism" genre of fiction, even relative poverty is a quagmire in which people are trapped for life unless Big Government comes to their rescue. In American reality, relative poverty is a condition through which young people pass while they're trying to stretch the low wages paid to junior workers to provide for two or more children; as they grow older, the parents typically earn better wages, the children start earning money, and the parents achieve a level of wealth that at least allows them to retire. AppaLAYsha was a "Socialist Realist" fantasy. In the real town of Appalachia, even the child coal miners (yes, at one time there were some--big boys who lied about their age) could become land owners, business owners, courteous and reasonably well educated "gentlemen," and some of them have done that.

Right. I will now step down from the soapbox and consider Flight Behavior. Yes, it starts out with an uninspiring portrait of a trashy young woman, whose response to her husband's slowness is to run out to start an adulterous affair with an even younger guy. Real mountain women would probably not be interested in knowing Dellarobia Turnbow, except as someone sneering at whom might help some insecure souls to feel better about themselves for a few minutes. However, readers who hang in there won't be disappointed by Kingsolver's detour into gritty realism. Finding the butterflies, Della pauses, reconsiders, and decides to upgrade rather than downgrade her life. By the end of the book she's taken responsibility for herself, said no to adultery even with a really attractive man, earned her spiteful mother-in-law's respect, and reclaimed the use of her brain (after three births and ten years of vegetating). She can be read as immature, rather than trashy, after all.

Kingsolver is, after all, the one who gave us the really inspiring mountain family in The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, and the even more inspiring real mountain family in Animal Vegetable Miracle; her purpose is not to belittle hill farmers. Actually, in Flight Behavior she scores plenty of points off the people who do belittle hill farmers. Among other things there's a priceless scene when a yuppie-type Poison Green hands Della a list of things he thinks she should be doing to save the Earth, and realizes just how much Greener she is than he would have believed anyone would try to be. (If you're in doubt whether you want to read about Della or not, during or after chapter one, go ahead and skip to pages 326-329.)

In fact, if Della had only resisted the temptation to cast her husband as a burden rather than the asset he shows promise of becoming, Flight Behavior could have been called a Christian Novel. Della goes to church, takes church seriously--although now I want to hear the four-verse hymn called "What a Friend I Have in Jesus," which can't be the three-verse "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" I've always heard--and has a respectable, intelligent minister who helps her husband enlighten his father. Della's spiritual life is neither devout nor orthodox, but it's a real part of her development in the story.

However, despite the due respect paid to Christianity as part of the lives of real people like Della, Flight Behavior doesn't quite make the grade as a Christian novel. In fact, it can even be read as a propaganda novel, as here:

Where Kingsolver's careful balance breaks down (as the philosophical balance of real life often does) is that she sets up a false dichotomy between the Real Scientist who believes in global warming with religious fervor, and the Uneducated People who don't believe that global warming is what caused the winter of 2010-2011, with or without its fictional butterflies. Real Scientists who dispute global warming theory, or even real non-scientists whose wariness of global warming theory dates back to their memories of the years when Real Scientists were blathering about the impending ice age, are not represented in this novel. And I could here join the chorus of indignation, because nowhere does this novel mention the real phenological weirdness of 2010-2011, e.g. the masses of tent caterpillars who took shelter on my porch, starved to death instead of pupating, and gushed red rather than green slime when crushed because before starving they'd tried to eat flower buds instead of leaves; monarch butterflies are a much prettier image, but... Kingsolver writes beautifully about some parts of reality; unfortunately she leaves out a few other parts that would have been pertinent.

Kingsolver has, in the past, supported some things associated with Agenda 21, most overtly in Small Wonders. So it's pleasant to report that she's not drunk all the U.N. Kool-aid; Flight Behavior does defend the right to farm, rather deftly I think. What's not to love about that aspect of this book is that Harriette Simpson Arnow was from eastern Kentucky, Wendell Berry is from eastern Kentucky, Kingsolver is from eastern Kentucky, their lifespans even overlapped, and it's not faaair for so much talent to be concentrated in such a small area.

In view of what Kingsolver herself had to say about Flight Behavior...

...I won't even tell you where to find the discussion of "the redneck national anthem: Settle for what you can get." I will say that, in my opinion, this book is worth reading, even worth rereading, just as a work of fiction that holds mountain people accountable for their choices and challenges all of us to make good ones.

But it's not perfect. It's a novel. If you'd rather spend your hard-earned cash on new nonfiction, well, so would I. So I'll mention that Flight Behavior is on the shelf--or will be, when I replace the copy in which I looked up the quotes while typing this--at our local library, and at libraries across the Mountain Region. Local readers (out in the point of Virginia) can look it up here: