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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Book Review: Flight Behavior

Kingsolver's new book set in East Tennessee

By Ben Jennings / A! Magaziine | September 26, 2012

Barbara Kingsolver has started interspersing epic, researched novels (like Poisonwood Bible and recently The Lacuna) with regional works that don't require years of travel and extensive library or Internet research.

Flight Behavior fits into this pattern. It is set in our region, this time an isolated mountainous area of East Tennessee close to Knoxville.

The novel begins with a miracle-or is it? The main character, Dellarobia Turnbow, a young mother who is bored with her life, is fleeing to a mountain cabin for an afternoon affair with her "telephone man" lover. When she nears the summit of the mountain, in an elevated valley, "the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own intensified flame ... It was a lake of fire, something far more fierce and wondrous than either of those elements alone."

Early in the novel, the "truth" of the miracle is revealed. Because of global warming and the climate change in the Southern Appalachian region, monarch butterflies have stopped migrating to Mexico and are wintering in East Tennessee.

Because the valley is owned by Dellarobia's family, they become the center of a media frenzy and international scientific research. Environmentalists, religious fundamentalists and politicians weigh in on what has occurred. Dellarobia becomes "the Butterfly Venus," an Internet celebrity when someone merges her photograph with the famous painting "The Birth of Venus."

The novel is Dellarobia's story. She may be the most complex female character Kingsolver has ever created, and certainly the most accurate "Appalachian" woman. Sadly her life fits into a predictable pattern for many young women in rural America, a pattern maybe even more prevalent in the Appalachian area.

Dellarobia is very intelligent, with hopes of going away to college and exploring the world, but she gets trapped at 17 by pregnancy, marriage, poverty and a seemingly dead-end life. She is ready for a transformation.

Kingsolver has always been a political writer-and an instructor; and here she tackles one of the most divisive contemporary issues: at what cost can Americans — and human beings generally — continue to flee from rationality and scientific knowledge?

When a research team sets up on the family property, Dellarobia gets hired to help with the research effort. As she learns about the methodologies of science, she slowly realizes what has happened to herself — and to the country: "I think people are afraid to face up to a bad outcome. That's just human. . . . If fight or flight is the choice, it's way easier to fly."

Butterflies . . . Dellarobia . . . America's fleeing from a scientific world view. All sorts of "flight behavior" are explored in this important new novel by one of America's most serious writers.

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