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Green Piece—Barbara Kingsolver’s Eco Obsessions

IN 2004, AFTER LIVING for two decades in the parched landscape of Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver returned to verdant Appalachia, her birthplace and ancestral home. A significant factor behind the move was the family’s desire to live near their food sources, something they’d been denied in the “space station”-like atmosphere of the Arizona desert. Determined to “eat deliberately” for a year, the family grew, canned, produced, or traded for nearly all of their food, eating locally and sustainably just before the words entered the hipster lexicon. From the first asparagus to the aged root vegetable, Kingsolver chronicled the family’s successes and foibles, and out of this experiment came Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007). Part memoir, part history lesson, part manual, and part ecological treatise warning of the dangers of climate change, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is both practical and persuasive: it explains without preaching and encourages without applying guilt. The message is one of growth, vivacity, and encouragement.

Kingsolver’s latest, Flight Behavior, is another foray into the world of Appalachian bionomics, though in this novel Kingsolver abandons the spirited determination of her memoir in favor of boldly transparent literary activism. The personal convictions that Kingsolver made so clear in Animal—that our climate is in a precarious state and requires immediate, individual action—fully inform this fiction. But this message is delivered as a sermon, and its thinly veiled politics often undermines its literary merits. 

Flight Behavior’s central character, Dellarobia Turnbow, is a young mother of two—struggling to pay the bills and wading through a lifeless marriage—when she happens upon an unexpected ecological phenomenon. While climbing the forested hill behind her house to meet her potential paramour, she encounters something so unusual that she cannot at first identify it: “the mountain seemed to explode with light ... every bough glowed with an orange blaze ... the flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks.” Convinced that what she sees is a forest fire, Dellarobia turns to run. When she realizes that the flames have produced no heat, her fear turns to revelation: “Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. … It had to mean something. She could save herself.”

The “orange blaze” is, of course, not a latter-day burning bush. It is a massive swarm of monarch butterflies, driven from their natural habitat by the changing climate. As Dellarobia learns, the butterflies typically winter in Mexico, but increasingly heavy rains and a horrific mudslide have destroyed their habitat. If the creatures do not live through the Appalachian winter the entire species risks extinction, and because they are on her family’s land, Dellarobia feels a keen sense of responsibility for them. The fate of the monarchs is at the center of Flight Behavior’s narrative; they create, for Dellarobia, a newfound awareness of the world, and also pitch her into existential and metaphysical turmoil.

For all Dellarobia’s anguish, however, Flight Behavior too often eschews the psychological in favor of the political. Each twist of the plot—which is mostly a series of near-catastrophes concerning the butterflies—feels designed to convince readers of our planet’s impending doom. This is not a frivolous mission, and there is no reason why a piece of literature cannot also serve a political need. But a subtle hand is required to stitch together literature and politics. Kingsolver’s needle is blunt.

The problem extends to the characters, who are overwritten and disconnected from their beliefs, as though they are reading lines, not voicing thoughts. Each co-opts the cause of the butterflies, but their motivations feel wooden and prescribed. A local minister, Pastor Ogle, calls the butterflies a sign from God. For Dellarobia’s mother-in-law, the truculent Hester, the butterflies are a source of income—she wants to charge visitors a fee. For Hester’s husband, Bear—who owns the land Dellarobia and her husband (called Cub, no joke) live on—the butterflies are merely an impediment to his land-development plans. Predictably, discord among the Turnbow family ensues.

But it is disagreement without conflict—a lot of smoke and very little fire. Each figure bustles about, noisily airing peeves and motivations, but for all their vocal vehemence, their behavior is mainly passive-aggressive. The only consensus among Dellarobia’s family is that their individual values trump the needs of the butterflies—and that climate change is phooey. As Cub says, “Al Gore can come toast his buns on this.” But their unity on this issue is not entirely convincing: they feel like pawns, set up by their creator so that she can knock them down.

The plot hinges on the arrival of the lepidopterist Ovid Byron—his name is another brick-to-the-skull metaphor—who marks the advent of reason and science in the characters’ lives. Ovid is tall and dreamy, with the brains of Albert Einstein and the face of Denzel Washington, has researched, charted, and examined the monarchs for years, and his dire warnings of the butterflies’ potential demise motivates Dellarobia to action. He sets up a lab in the Turnbow barn, and Dellarobia begins to work as a member of his research team, collecting and measuring samples, and slowly gaining a sense of agency and control over her life.

Dellarobia’s development—along with some genuinely interesting information on the migratory patterns of monarchs—is perhaps Flight Behavior’s finest achievement. Though her eagerness to please Ovid often reads as naïveté (and even sycophancy), Dellarobia’s growth, from resistant, beleaguered mother to autonomous woman, is fresh and heartening. Of all the characters, her attitude toward the monarchs is the least political and the most personal, and it is in Dellarobia that Kingsolver edges back, albeit slightly, towards the infectious determination of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Ovid, on the other hand, falls victim to the same pratfalls that afflict Kingsolver’s other characters: he resembles a cardboard cutout of The Brilliant But Kindly Scientist. (And he’s Caribbean, too, for some multicultural P.C. polish.) Willing to patiently explain his work for hours (in spite of impending climatological doom), Ovid accompanies kindergarten tours on the hillside. Despite his accomplished pedigree, he doesn’t “put much stock in titles.” When Dellarobia and Ovid first meet, she gives him a short lesson in basic monarch facts that she has gleaned from the internet. Upon learning that he is an expert, she asks why he let her “rattle on.” He replies: “Forgive me Dellarobia. It’s a selfish habit. I never learn anything from listening to myself.” Brilliant but humble, sexy but faithful, Ovid never steps into the third dimension.

Ovid’s presence, and a glimpse of his naked ass, prompt Dellarobbia to fantasize about his sexual prowess. But the larger fantasy about Ovid is Kingsolver’s: he is a dream scientist, come to rescue the Appalachians from their simplicity. At a moment of frustration, he agrees to speak with a local reporter who has been doggedly trailing him throughout the book to little avail. But what he gives her is a scolding:

What scientists disagree on now, Tina, is how to express our shock. The glaciers that keep Asia’s watersheds in business are going right away. Maybe one of your interns could Google that for you. The Arctic is genuinely collapsing. Scientists used to call these things the canary in the mine. What they say now is, The canary is dead. We are at the top of Niagara Falls, Tina, in a canoe. There is an image for your viewers. We got here by drifting, but we cannot turn around for a lazy paddle back when you finally stop pissing around. We have arrived at the point of an audible roar. Does it strike you as a good time to debate the existence of the falls?

As Hurricane Sandy and the storm trifecta showed us, the climate is undoubtedly changing, and not for the better. But Ovid is a liberal fantasy—a straight-shooting scientist come to save Middle America with vivid metaphor—more than an effective literary medium for Kingsolver’s message. The reductive characterizations and overwrought scare tactics she uses in Flight Behavior are not nearly as moving as the activism she advocates in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

A novel may be full of opinions, but it must never be a sermon.

Hillary Kelly is the Managing Editor of THE BOOK.