BY HEATHER C. WATSON
“A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.” With that provocative opening sentence, Barbara Kingsolver introduces us to Dellarobia Turnbow, the restless East Tennessee housewife at the heart of her fourteenth novel, Flight Behavior. As the story begins, spunky Dellarobia seeks an escape from her banal life on an Appalachian sheep farm. Tired of serving food “that ends in -ios” and shopping at thrift shops, Dellarobia prepares to throw her good life away by leaving her husband and children for a younger man.
On her way to meet her lover, however, Dellarobia encounters an incident that will forever change her life. A colony of monarch butterflies have mysteriously migrated onto the Turnbow family farm. As the bright markings and overwhelming numbers of the butterfly herd seemingly set the land aflame, Dellarobia experiences an awakening.
Dellarobia, the smartest girl in her high school class, found her dreams cut short by an accidental pregnancy that resulted in a shotgun wedding to the hapless Cub Turnbow. After a decade of marriage, her life is small and unexamined. Even her very name is a mistake: her mother believed she’d heard “Dellarobia” in a biblical context when she’d actually heard it at a craft demonstration at the local Women’s Club. As the butterflies receive national attention, Dellarobia finds herself at the crossroads of religion and science, viewing the world for the first time through the lens of politics and academia. The influx of journalists, scientists and tourists to tiny Feathertown, Tennessee forces Dellarobia to reexamine the dreams of her youth and the values of her adult life.
Kingsolver, a Carlisle, Kentucky native who famously lives on a rural Virginia farm, deftly crafts a secluded town in present day Appalachia. In Feathertown, fast food is fine dining and farmers struggle against extinction. Dellarobia’s in-laws face the choice between brutal deforestation of their land and losing the land altogether. The modernization of these areas is seen in both the end of the old farming ways and the the influx of modern media such as YouTube, Facebook and Topix, the gossip site that exists as the scourge of small town life. The novel paints a realistic portrait of the growing pains of modern Appalachia, as the residents of Feathertown strive to hang on to the old ways of farming and shepherding while adapting to modern technology. Feathertown’s class struggles are also apparent: blue-collar Dellarobia is wary of outsiders such as “yuppies” and University of Tennessee fans. Perhaps less realistic is the novel’s dialogue, which seems at times stilted and stiff.
Flight Behavior is a culmination of Kingsolver’s works and interests. The recipient of multiple science degrees as well an avid feminist and environmental activist, the author weaves these topics into a parable of awakening. The most interesting scene in Flight Behavior is when a scientist articulates the rules of carbon footprint reduction, tenets which are already followed in the Turnbows’ simple life.
“Flight Behavior” refers both to Dellarobia’s dream of running away from her life with Cub and to the migratory pattern of the monarch butterflies. In a telling scene, Cub reveals that neither he nor Dellarobia have ever flown on an airplane. As the butterflies lead Dellarobia on a path from near-ruin to redemption, the reader is left hoping that she will fly away to a better life.
Kingsolver will read at Joseph-Beth in Lexington in November.