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What Flight Behavior teaches us about motherhood, marriage, women’s identity and climate chang

Barbara Kingsolver’s dazzling prose is undeniable and it’s on ample display in every book she has ever written, including her latest, Flight Behavior, the story of Dellarobia, a passionate young woman whose teen pregnancy and subsequent marriage halt her plans to attend college and force her to live out a dull existence in a forgotten town in the middle of Tennessee. With a controlling and cunning mother-in-law, a husband whose “eyes go glossy in front of the TV every night”…as he “channel surfed without cease,” Dellarobia has nothing of her own except a pair of brand new boots she wears on her way to meet a  potential lover. The meeting never takes place, as she stumbles upon a forest filled with Monarch butterflies—a forest ablaze—eliminating the possibility of an affair but also changing the course of her life forever.

Kingsolver skillfully parallels the penalties of climate change with the consequences of misguided life decisions. Like the Monarch butterflies who have fled Mexico for the harsh Tennessee winter, Dellarobia must learn to adapt to new seasons and daunting developments in order to survive.

In Dellarobia I found a great companion, and a part of myself. We are both mothers who love our children fiercely but who also, on some occasions, and sometimes painfully, long for a more significant existence outside the confines of our homes and domestic responsibilities. When I came upon the line, ”but being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself,” I thought yes, exactly. We are both survivors of marriages that have failed to meet our expectations, and Kingsolver writes about this with admirable candor:“She stared at Cub, trying to find holy matrimony in there, pushing her way back through the weeds as she always did.” We are both haunted by our parents’ deaths, disenchanted with the cards we’ve been dealt, and avid daydreamers. Most importantly, as Dellarobia discovers, and as I have been forced to realize, we are products of our environment…but that alone does not define us; we do have the power to change: “Something had gotten into her, yes. The arguments she’d always swallowed like a daily ration of pebbles had begun coming into her mouth and leaping out like frogs.” Witnessing Dellarobia gathering strength and giving into her intellectual curiosity, one can’t help but stand and cheer her on.

Kingsolver’s talents neither start nor stop with memorable characters that are easy to identify with. She has a larger message here, and it is a message that needs to be heard.  She deftly braids a phenomenon of apocalyptic proportions within the humdrum of everyday life in a town made up of sheep laborers and farmers. The protagonist’s seemingly insignificant-existence-turned-upside-down represents the kind of transformation the world will have to face if it continues to be oblivious to the environment; that individuals will have to confront if they continue to be unaware of their potential. She demands our attention when she says, “They built their tidy houses of self-importance and special blessing and went inside and slammed the door, unaware the mountain behind them was aflame.” Ignorance and indifference and an unwillingness to adapt will surely ruin us, Kingsolver seems to be saying. And I couldn’t agree more.

I hope Kingsolver doesn’t wait as many years as she did between Poisonwood Bible and Flight Behavior to write a new novel. Her lyrical writing, the depth of her messages, her sense of humor, her keen understanding of nature—all of these aspects contribute to unforgettable, earth-shattering reading experiences that hit close to home in breathtaking, eye-opening ways.

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