In Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel, "Flight Behavior," she interweaves a natural aberration with her character’s struggle for freedom. The tenuous life cycle of the Monarch butterfly and the life of Kingsolver’s central character share many characteristics: a displacement to an unforgiving environment, an unlikely opportunity to flourish, and an opportunity to escape, along with a colorful appearance—fiery orange wings and fiery red hair. Dellarobia, the story’s heroine, describes herself as having skipped the frosted pink lipstick of innocent teenage girls, “heading straight for Immoral Coral and Come-to-Bed Red.” Trapped into an early marriage by an unplanned pregnancy Dellarobia struggled to live the life she’d chosen, with overbearing in-laws nearby and no clear means of escape.
Dellarobia, the unhappy wife of Cub (son of Bear), lives in the rural mountains of Tennessee in a community called Feathertown. Dellarobia and Cub live hand to mouth, subsisting on his meager take-home pay, while raising two small children, shopping at the second-hand store, and splurging on shakes at the local fast food restaurant. Dellarobia is considering leaving Cub when she sees an amazing sight—the trees on the mountain behind their home “on fire” but not burning—millions of Monarch butterflies roosting in the trees. This makes her home not only a tourist attraction, but the hallowed site of a religious awakening, the center of an anti-logging campaign, and the draw for an intriguing scientist and his crew.
Ovid Byron sees Dellarobia’s natural penchant for science and detail, and enlists her help in leading teams of volunteers who count and catalog the data from butterfly research. The troubling element is the butterflies’ appearance in Tennessee at all, since their usual migratory routes are much further away. Ovid hypothesizes that the butterflies are doomed, since temperatures in the mountains of Tennessee would be too harsh to support them. In the meantime, Dellarobia is entranced by Ovid and the breadth of potential he sees in her, and battles to protect her privacy from the onslaught of national media and sort out the scientific from the superstitious.
Flight, escape, and survival are repeated themes throughout the book, as well as birth and death. Kingsolver’s descriptions are spot on. She describes a congregation singing an old time hymn like they were “dragging it like a plow through heavy clay.” Dellarobia’s “every possession was either unbreakable, or broken.” She masterfully describes Dellarobia’s environment in a way that helps readers feel her frustration while dramaticizing the effect of potential climate change.
"Flight Behavior" was published in 2012 by Harper Collins.