“Flight Behavior,” by Barbara Kingsolver, is set in Appalachia. It tells a story of the impact of global warming on ordinary citizens. As in her other works, Ms. Kingsolver writes about the harm humans are doing to the environment and to food sources, and also about the struggles of life in an Appalachian community in eastern Tennessee.
This layered story about an undereducated young woman finding her way in life is woven into the larger theme of the fragility of the world. Dellarobia Turbow, who was pregnant and married at 17, is a mother of two trapped in a life of rural poverty. She has repressed any ambitions of her own.
Dellarobia is a dreamer. She dearly loves her two children, Preston and Cordelia, and dreams of their going to college and having a better life. She fantasizes about men she meets and imagines running off with them but remains true to her marriage vows to Cub, a sweet, boring and slow-moving sheep farmer.
One day, even though she knows she may be throwing her life away, she marches into the forest to meet a potential lover. At the top of a rise, however, she sees the most incredible sight, beautiful and awe-inspiring: The forest appears to be on fire. There is no fire, however. What she sees are clouds of monarch butterflies settling there for the winter. Tens of millions of monarch butterflies, thrown off course by climate change, have landed mistakenly in the forest behind Dellarobia’s house instead of their usual Mexican migration site. She abandons the clandestine meeting, goes home and shares this experience. The description of the hills and trees covered with monarch butterflies that light up the forest is extraordinary.
Eventually the town, the press, church leaders and scientists all learn about the butterfly migration. Each faction attributes to it a different meaning. The sighting of the monarch butterflies also creates a media frenzy in the small fictional town of Feathertown, Tenn. Ovid Byron, an entomologist, arrives with other scientists to study this unusual situation, and Ovid hires Dellarobia as an assistant.
The author incorporates information about lepidoptery, sheep farming and lambing, global warming and the environment. Ms. Kingsolver’s story and her concern for the warming of the planet, rising oceans and the new and alarming weather extremes are authentic. This is a poignant story of one small town, one family, and one woman and the enormous consequences of her attempt to find her true self and her place in the world.