Life is no crystal staircase for Dellarobia, the main character in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior. It is a stirring read, but not as much as her 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible, a powerful female-centric story set in the Belgian Congo.
In Flight Behavior, Dellarobia is rearing two small kids in a low-income household, and living in the “right-to-work” (at low pay) state of Tennessee. She is alienated from herself, her husband, and especially her mother-in-law. In an era of U.S. working-class demobilization, Dellarobia is adrift in a loveless marriage. She and her husband Cub married young and became parents before fully getting to know each other.
They groan under the yoke of daily responsibilities. Their sparse home sits on the property of Cub’s parents. The couple’s communication is woeful. Their kids come alive in Kingsolver’s nuanced sketches of childhood awe and insight; they glue the couple together. Kingsolver handles this dynamic with a deft touch.
Dellarobia’s angst develops within monopoly-finance capitalism. Kingsolver, like Emily Dickinson before her, shows and tells the story slant. (This slanting is also a feature of The Lacuna, Kingsolver’s 2009 tale of loss and love against a backdrop of revolution and reaction that spans continents.) Dellarobia does not seek illicit drugs, but does pursue a series of male partners to soothe her unhappiness. Anticipation grows as she is lurching towards a tryst, ambling uphill. Her community serves as a metaphor for the Sisyphean shadow of personal disappointments, both parental and matrimonial.
Her character development intrigues. Who Dellarobia becomes on her journey of discovery upends her world and enlightens readers just arriving to radical political economy. Dellarobia’s vision of a natural phenomenon of splendid beauty indicates an opposite process. We find this contradiction through her lived experience. Call it a capitalist crime scene: an environmental tragedy ripped from today’s headlines. The messenger and teacher of the disastrous ecological details is a black male scientist. His entry into the life of Dellarobia, a poor white woman, alters her assumptions about earthly biology, and much more. His persona and voice drips the scientific process of gathering data as a means to expand inquiry. A scientific approach to life, cool as a cucumber, contrasts with Dellarobia’s. Kingsolver uses this duo’s relationship to compare and contrast common sense and nonsense, myths and truths about the environment.
Their lively exchanges help to propel Kingsolver’s linear plot, which extends to Mexico and involves migrants from that NAFTA nation whose fate is tied to that of beautiful butterflies. Dellarobia’s political consciousness grows. The scientist nudges her and Kingsolver’s readers on a path involving the present and future conditions of the biosphere. Dellarobia’s oldest son and, haltingly, Cub, his mother, and a religious figure whose secret history surprises, learn to think outside the big box of what Noam Chomsky calls America’s “corporate-run and propaganda-managed” society. In different yet similar ways, Dellarobia and the monarch butterflies encounter a light at the end of the tunnel. It is an onrushing train: the planetary ecological emergency.
The question of media and schools in producing conscience and consciousness is sharp and spot-on in Flight Behavior. Kingsolver’s depiction of local TV reporters and reporting is positively wicked. Weather-related news unlinked to environmental havoc saturates the media landscape. (Look no further than mainstream coverage of Super-Typhoon Haiyan that leveled the central Philippines archipelago in November 2013.) Thanks to the scientist she meets, Dellarobia comes to understand that climate change explains the sudden appearance of monarch butterflies in her burg. This systemic crisis is delivering horrific consequences, from melting polar icepacks to extreme weather and species extinction.
Kingsolver and her characters never say “capitalism.” That says a lot about its ideological power over my favorite American novelist. Nevertheless, I recommend Flight Behavior. It is a noble bid to fictionalize a factual calamity before us.