For most people, climate change remains an abstraction that is dwarfed by more pressing daily concerns. And even when we are confronted with glaring evidence of a drastically altered environment, we may not be able truly grasp the cataclysm it represents. That’s what happens to Dellarobia Turnbow in the beginning of Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful novel Flight Behavior. Dellarobia is walking through the Tennessee woods near her home, on her way to making a rather poor life choice, when she stumbles upon a strange and breathtaking sight: millions of monarch butterflies in the trees and sky above. She turns back home, transformed in ways that she can’t explain.
Dellarobia is a smart woman who hasn’t been able to escape the crushing poverty that envelops her small Appalachian town. She married too young to Cub, a sweet man without a curious bone in his body. They have two children together, the only bright spot in Dellarobia’s otherwise bleak life. When news of her butterfly discovery spreads around town, Dellarobia becomes a minor celebrity. Some of the people at her church view the monarchs’ sudden appearance as a divine sign and Dellarobia as a prophet. But then she meets Ovid Byron, a professor and biologist who has come to study the butterflies. Byron helps Dellarobia understand that these insects do not belong in Tennessee and that their displacement is the likely the result of climate change. Byron hires her as a lab assistant and she begins to imagine other possibilities for her life.
Kingsolver belongs to a small group of literary writers who can weave science into their stories without resorting to eye-crossing blocks of expository text. Flight Behavior is a book about systems, both natural and social, and how those systems can collapse under duress. But this isn’t an entirely bleak novel. Dellarobia is a funny and quick-witted woman and by the end of the book I was a bit in love with her. I wanted better things for her. Whether both the monarchs and Dellarobia will endure is left open to interpretation.