A Review of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior

Flight Behavior is the story of a married woman who turns back from the tryst she has arranged with a man to whom she is attracted when she comes across the spectacle of millions of Monarch butterflies roosting on a mountain behind her home.

The careful reader will note a problem inherent in this opening scene, which is that the location so necessary for the story to work would not likely have been agreeable to the man given that it was a long walk up a dirt road to an unknown location, which would have required him to park his car in front of her house, thereby defeating the intent to meet in secret. Further this was accomplished without the two meeting on the trail up the hill. Did it make sense for the woman to arrange to meet the man at the top of a mountain behind her house in an old shack––which is never mentioned in the story––and not go there together?

Nor can one delve too deeply into the basis for the woman’s changing her mind. Yes, she had left her glasses at home and thus what she saw startled her. It looked like fire, but once she determined that it was not fire, she nevertheless took it as a sign and turned around. In the end, we have to accept Kingsolver’s thin logic that such an experience brought her protagonist to her senses.

By imagining this moment with its illogical components, Kingsolver nevertheless accomplishes her goal, which is to link the environmental story she is so committed to telling to an incident that starts her protagonist on a path towards independence.

From that shaky start, the story is well constructed, interweaving Dellarobia’s evolution with the environmental story, which is premised on the notion that instead of travelling to the mountain top in Mexico where they have been wintering for untold years, part of the Monarch population stopped instead in Tennessee. This brings the leading expert on Monarch migration to Dellarobia’s doorstep. He is soon parked in her backyard so that he can research the butterflies’ behavior, while contributing to her flight from unfaithful wife to new woman.

Some view Kingsolver’s treatment of the fictional Tennessee rural community where the story takes place as condescending. (See Hector Tobar, “Barbara Kingsolver’s Got the Red State blues in ‘Flight Behavior,’” LA Times, 11/2/12.) I thought it was both nuanced and balanced. The minister, for example, while carrying tremendous weight in community decisions, was pictured as modest in his appearance and he sought consensus over a weighty family decision rather than handing down a decree, and, while it would have been easy to portray Dellarobia’s husband as a “red neck” bully, Kingsolver made him a good father, a loyal husband, and largely passive in the face of his wife’s new-found independence.

The plight of the butterflies is told with an heavy mixture of fact and fantasy––in places perhaps a little too much fact, such as details about how the scientists measured body fat loss, but one assumes Kingsolver felt it necessary to go an extra yard in terms of how the scientists did their work to counter arguments concerning the conclusions that global warming was the likely cause not only of the butterflies’ failure to find their way home, but other unusual events starting with the strange weather which at the end of the story destroys her home physically after she “destroyed” the marriage.

In terms of the global warming side of the story, one doesn’t expect Kingsolver to present the other side of the argument. She is not obliged to do so. Readers will have to take her information into account and make up their own minds. Her story works in large part due to her extraordinary ability to tell one woman’s story in a way that is not only believable, but is also compelling. We root for her to get over a past which limited her options and take herself seriously, just as we root for the Monarchs to overcome whatever has caused their population to plummet and reappear in fields and mountains throughout the U.S. and Canada as they have in the past.

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