Kingsolver’s Great New Novel: Flight Behavior

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Barbara Kingsolver's novel Flight Behavior, published 2012 by  Harper

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior, published 2012 by Harper

Yesterday I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Flight Behavior.

I’ve been a fan of Kingsolver for a while. Kingsolver’s books are on my favorite authors shelves at my home – alongside Primo Levi, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Percival Everett, Sherman Alexie, Arundhati Roy, Chester Himes, Junot Diaz, Kobo Abe, Michael Ventura, Franz Kafka, Somerset Maughm, Jorge Luis Borges, and a few others.

I really enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver’s earlier novels – especially The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, and Prodigal Summer (my favorite Kingsolver book so far.) I also like her non-fiction, including Animal Vegetable Miracle, plus her essays in High Tide in Tucson and Small Wonders. I blogged briefly about Kingsolver’s most recent novel, The Lacuna, earlier here.

Flight Behavior is excellent – I definitely recommend it. I think that Flight Behavior is probably most like Prodigal Summer. Both of these excellent novels feature sympathetic scientists/biologists/ecologists – and have excellent analogous stories that parallel animal and human behaviors.

Flight Behavior a story of an Appalachian woman, Dellarobia Turnbow, who encounters a massive flock of displaced monarch butterflies. The encounter changes her life and her relationships – broadening her horizons. Flight Behavior contrasts common and scientific views of climate change, species evolution and extinction, and impacts of everyday behavior. The book is largely a vehicle for Kingsolver to explore big issues related to global warming (or climate change), which she does in a language that’s very understandable, and in ways that ordinary folks may well be able to relate to. As with much of Kingsolver’s work, there’s a clear political point of view (lefty, environmentalist – same as my personal bias) but characters across the spectrum are portrayed sympathetically.

I especially like the relationship between Dellarobia and her mother-in-law Hester. Hester is a sort of salt-of-the-earth older farmer woman, skilled in raising sheep – raised for wool and for meat. Dellarobia and Hester don’t get along so well, but, over time, they come to certain understandings. The descriptions of them caring for lambs – the animals’ personalities, the details of harvesting wool, and rearing babies – are among the best prose in the book.

One warning – though the whole book is good, I think that the gems are in the last 50-100 pages. It’s all worthwhile, but I remember thinking at about page 350 (out of 436 pages total) that maybe it was just a good descriptive setting, without a whole lot of plot or transformation… then the book goes from very good to sweetly awesome.

Here’s a brief excerpt, not really central to the plot, but I found it to be a really sweet moment between Dellarobia and her son Preston (who’s like 5-6 years old.) Dellarobia and Preston are with her daughter Cordie and her good friend Dovey. They’re at a huge second-hand store called Try It Again Warehouse. The kids, Preston and Cordie, are enjoying looking through all the cast-off stuff including books; Preston becomes interested in a volume from an encyclopedia:

Preston came galloping toward them with a book, breathless. He opened it to a particular page and asked what it said. […]

Preston’s book was an encyclopedia of animals. The objects of his curiosity were a Mollyhawk and a Goony Bird, Denizens of the Lonely Seas. Preston accepted this information as if he’d suspected it all along, and turned to another page. “Tasmanian Devil,” she read. “He mates in March and April.” The book had a quaint look about it. She paged back to a section titled: Why Nature Is Important To Your Child. “Herbert Hoover was an outstanding geologist,” she read alound. “How come scientists don’t run for president anymore?”

“Can I have it, please?” Preston begged.

“It’s kind of old-timey,” Dellarobia warned. She looked for a date: 1952

“But it’s animals,” Preston argued. “They stay the same!”

“The price is right,” Dovey advised.

“Okay, it’s yours.” Dellarobia wished her son could aspire to more than a bargain basement science book. Obviously, that why most people didn’t shop here. They didn’t want to think of themselves as people who shopped here. But Preston looked thrilled as he ran off to rescue his sister.

[… – a short time later]

A gentle tap on her [Dellarobia’s] forearm made her jump. “Jeez, Preston!” She put her hand on her chest. “You snuck up on me.”

He looked up at here through his smudged glasses, penitient, hopeful, sure of his next move. All things Preston. He held up the same book, this time open to a horrific close-up. “Magnified face of the common housefly,” she read aloud.

“Cool!” Preston paged ahead. “What are these?”

“Ants,” she read. “Flying.”

“Ants fly?” Dovey and Preston asked at the same time.

“The Marriage Flight,” she read aloud, and skimmed ahead to summarize. “At certain times of the year the nest has winged individuals, both males and perfect females.” She glanced at Preston. “That’s a quote,” she told him, “perfect females. For some unknown reason, one day all the other ants will turn on the winged ones, attacking them mercilessly and driving them out of the colony. They test out their wings for the first time on the so-called marriage flight.” She looked up at Preston again. “It’s an old book. I think nowadays they’d say mating.”

He nodded gravely.

“After mating, the female tears off her wings and crawls in a hole to start her own colony. After rearing a small nucleus of workers, she becomes an egg-laying machine.”

Dovey shuddered. “Sheesh. And they all live happily ever after.”

“How do they tear off their own wings?” Preston asked.

“I don’t know, sweetie. But we’re taking the book home, so we’ll find out.”

“We’re getting this one too? It’s not the same as the book I showed you before.”

“Let me see that.” The spine was marked Volume 16. “Uh-oh,” Dellarobia said. “There’s a whole series of these, Preston. It’s an encyclopedia.”

“I know, Mama, it has all the animals,” he said. Considerately leaving off the duh.

“I don’t think we can buy all sixteen.” She weighed the options, but sixteen dollars was a lot, for something this outdated. If they could hold out for a computer.

Preston looked at the volume with a longing that made here miserable. How much could she deny him for the sake of something that might not materialize? But he came to grips, as always. “I’ll get the ants, and the Goony Bird,” he pronounced. “Cordie wants the baby elephant one, and lizards. Two each, okay?”

Dellarobia took a deep breath. “Honey, I don’t think that they’ll let us break up the set.” This made no sense to Preston, so she tried again. “It’s all sold as one thing. Like, they wouldn’t let you buy the lid of the teapot, and not the teapot.:

“Well, if it’s all one thing, then it costs one dollar,” he reasoned.

Dovey looked at Dellarobia, eyebrows raised.

“Technically you’re right,” Dellarobia said. “It has to be one or the other. I could ask. But I don’t think the store people will see it our way.” Her mood sank at the thought of haggling and pleading. For someone’s thrown-out books.

“He’s the master persuader,” Dovey said. “Let him go ask.”

Dellarobia watched fear overtake her son as he understood the proposition. His razor-straight eyebrows lifted as his eyes met hers, hoping for a bailout.

“Here’s the thing, Preston. If I ask, they’ll say no. I’m nobody here, they won’t do me any favors. But you’re this awesome kid that wants his own encyclopedia, right? You totally have a shot.” She backed up her cart to look down the length of an aisle to the checkout registers. There were two cashiers, a heavyset kid with tatoos covering his arms, and an older lady with a ponytail. “Come here,” she said. She stood behind him with her wrists crossed over his chest. “Which one, you think?”

He picked the tatoo kid, no surprise there. In Preston’s world, grandma types were not automatically on your side. Dellarobia told him to gather up as much of the set as he could carry, and go make his argument. She and Dovey watched him make the long walk down the towering book aisle […]

Somberly he gathered an armload of the yellow volumes, ignoring his sister, who was stuffing books in the alligator purse and dumping them out. Preston waited an eternity at the second register behind a woman buying a floor lamp, who seemed to have an issue with it. The tattoo kid at the register seemed attentive to her monologue. A good sign, it went to character. Dovey and Dellarobia stood mute with apprehension. From the distance they couldn’t hear, but watched as Preston articulated his claim. The kid took one of the books from Preston, looking it over carefully.

“At the college where Pete and Dr. Byron [visiting biologists studying the butterflies] teach,” Dellarobia said quietly, “the students send them e-mails to demand what grades they want. Can you imagine?”

When the cashier gave his verdict, they saw Preston’s whole body react, the pump of his fist, the faintly audible hiss of joy, yesss! He turned and looked back across the long jumble of cast offs toward his mother, meeting her eyes with a cocksure expression wholly unlike anything she knew of her son. She felt pierced by loss. He would go so far. Maybe she had the same stuff inside, the same map of the big picture, but the goods had passed through her to lodge in her son and awaken him. Already he had the means and the will for the journey.

Get your hands on Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior – it’s an enjoyable worthwhile read!

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