Book review of 'Flight Behaviour'

I have just finished the book Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. It is a wonderful book that has climate change, and its impacts on the natural world and the human psyche, at its centre.

Set in the southern Appalachians of Tennessee, the central character is Dellarobia Turnbow, a mother of two, in an unsatisfying marriage to Cub. The story begins with Dellarobia ready to throw all this away as she heads to meet another man. However, she is stopped in her tracks when she is faced by the forest on the family land seemingly ablaze, and, taking this as sign, returns home. Rather than a fire, this vision turns out to be a mass of Monarch butterflies, which for some reason, have shunned their usual winter roost in Mexico for the Turnbow farm.

This unexpected arrival is seen as a positive thing for the town, and the Turnbows. However, for Dellarobia this starts to unravel with the appearance of Ovid Byron, a professor who has spent his life studying the Monarchs. Ovid takes up residence in a camper van close to Dellarobia’s house as he begins to investigate why the Monarchs have made this unexpected stay in the Appalachians, with climate change seen as the most likely culprit.

As Dellarobia is drawn into the scientific study of the Monarchs she is forced to confront issues that, for others in her family and local community can be seen with religious certainty as God’s work. Her struggle to accept that humanity may be having so profound an impact as climate change is central to the story. Part of this struggle is a desire to avoid thinking about the future that we may be creating. This is brought home to Dellarobia in an exchange with Ovid Byron about the impacts of climate change. She wants to know whether there “is some part of this I can actually see” and his response “your children’s adulthood?” makes clear to her the stakes involved.

There is also recognition that issues such as climate change are not about rationally appraising evidence and deciding whether or not it is happening. Rather, for many people it involves a deep questioning of their core beliefs. This gives a more complex understanding of denial of climate change. There is a sub-theme in the book about how it has become acceptable to set up ‘country folk’, ‘uneducated people’ as something to laugh at but this is something that is completely avoided here. Kingsolver’s development of the characters is wonderful and in no sense are you ever drawn to see any of them of as ignorant. Most of the characters do not ‘believe’ in climate change as it does not fit with the beliefs that are at their core. Questioning those core beliefs is not easy and will not happen unless there is clear reason for people to open up. As Dellarobia thinks at one point “How could it be true... if no one is talking about it? People with influence. Important people made such a big deal of infinitely smaller losses”. The Monarchs and her changing circumstances provide Dellarobia with that reason at a time when she is and is crying out for change. This combination enables her to shift her understanding, and lift up her gaze from the immediate surroundings to take in the bigger picture.

There is a sense of frustration in the book, expressed through Dellarobia, with the inability of the scientists to articulate and make real the issues that they are dealing with every day. It is too easy to cry uncertainty, bury yourself in your work and cite the need for further research. Through Ovid Byron there is recognition of the deep emotional impact that scientists may face, as he talks of his work keeping him awake at night, but this is buried, partly as it is ‘not what science is about’. More deeply there is a sense of need to isolate these emotions from the work as a means of escape. All this comes out in a memorable scene where Byron loses his cool when being interviewed by a TV journalist and the emotions come flooding out. Faced with her attempts to frame climate change as contentious he argues that “what scientists disagree on now is how to express our shock”. He goes on to question why the media chose not to cover the issues, “you have a job to do and you are not doing it” before linking this to an acceptance of the lies spun organisations funded by Exxon and others. Captured by Dellarobia’s friend on her phone this video becomes a YouTube hit – with the suggestion that this more emotional approach may better connect with people. Perhaps this is a simplistic view of why climate change has failed to engage with many people but it is important to consider it.

I think that it is important that the issues of climate change are tackled in ways that do call us to engage more emotionally and this book is a great example of that. It is not judgemental, it is not delivering answers but it is exploring the issues and asking how they become relevant to people. Dellarobia’s willingness to learn and expose herself to different ways of thinking should be an inspiration for us all.

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