I adore Barbara Kingsolver. I first read her book The Poisonwood Bible (~550 pages) in one sitting. A work of historical fiction which covers the Congo from the time of Patrice Lumumba through to the present day, it’s perhaps still her best known novel, although in the past 15 years she’s grown as a writer, and I felt her novel The Lacuna was an even stronger work. Kingsolver’s protagonists have aged and matured with her (as is so often the case with great writers) and her ability to plunge into the details of her settings, historical or otherwise, has deepened. All of which is to say that I was excited to hear that she’d published another novel, Flight Behavior, in 2012.
My expectations may have been unfairly high but this book didn’t disappoint. In the marginal agricultural land of the southern Appalachians in rural western Tennessee, we watch a disillusioned and overwhelmed farm wife deal with the disruptions which follow when a large portion of the North American monarch butterfly population decides to stop in the valley behind her home instead of continuing on to Mexico due to global climate change. Tourists, treehuggers, scientists, and CNN reporters descend on the small town (whose one motel more typically hosts meth labs than visitors from out of state), and we watch as our hero rises to the occasion as best she can.
For me, it’s a sign of great writing that Kingsolver explores the human condition by telling compelling and important stories. (I recently gave up on a Zadie Smith novel because it revolved almost entirely around a small university’s faculty politics and internal rivalries; I can’t imagine wanting to read it even if I was an academic.) Here we see not just global climate change and the havoc it wreaks on ecosystems, but a discussion of why opinion polls have been showing steadily decreasing numbers of US citizens who accept that these changes are happening. Kingsolver, who lives in rural Virginia, has been there. She and her family also live as much as possible from what their farm can provide (an exercise which was the subject of her recent nonfiction book, Animal Vegetable Mineral, which was very well received). The rural folk who disdain and distrust the overeducated coastal elites are her neighbours and she patiently explains to us that no ecological rescue plan is going to happen without including them in the conversation. She knows how to relate to both sides of the culture war and that alone makes this book worth reading.