The Meek Will Not Inherit the Earth in Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Flight Behavior’

If Philip Roth’s recent announcement of retirement is reason to lament (though we can hope his retirement is akin to Alice Munro’s equally lamented, fortunately brief work stoppage), we can console ourselves with Barbara Kingsolver who, in late middle age, maintains a steady output of extraordinary work. Granted, Roth and Kingsolver could not differ more in temperament or topic. Yet each is a chronicler of the times we live in: Roth charts the human heart (and loins), while Kingsolver entwines environmentalism with human relations.

Depending on your point of view, the weather, which by any measure has gone haywire, indicates the end of days, one more insanity in a world gone mad, or the ineluctable effects of global warming, an event which sits squarely on human shoulders. Whatever your feelings about global warming, we caused it, and we’re paying for it. The ecological devastation humanity has wrought seems to be past repair. Now all we can do is try and salvage what’s left, though this would require sacrifices many are unwilling to make.

Others—see the Tea Party and other political conservatives in the United States—refuse to believe global warming exists. (Never mind hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, never mind the droughts, the shrinking Arctic icepack. Hop into your SUV for a nice road trip!) Then there are the people who, by dint of remote locale, limited education, and poverty, lack exposure to information. These are the people of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

Set in Appalachian Kentucky , Flight Behavior relates a fictionalized natural disaster: a colony of monarch butterflies migrates to land belonging to farmer Burley “Bear” Turnbow and his wife, Hester. Their adult son, Burley, Jr., known as Cub, inhabits a small house on his parents’ land with his wife, Dellarobia, and their children, five-year-old Preston and toddler Cordelia.

Flight Behavior is seen through 27-year-old Dellarobia Turnbow’s eyes. Dellarobia is a complex character whose intelligence defuses a stereotype Kingsolver is eager to dispel, the Appalachian backwoods fool. A dedicated mother but dissatisfied wife, Dellarobia planned to attend college before life intervened. An only child, she lost both parents by age 17.

A one-night stand with the sweet-natured but dim Cub, whose name is indicative of his subservient attitude, led to an unplanned pregnancy. In their hamlet of Feathertown, where privacy is a laughable concept, Cub and Dellarobia do the right thing. The teenaged couple marry, but their infant son is born prematurely and dies. When the alarmingly intelligent Preston and fiery Cordelia arrive a few years later, Dellarobia is grateful, but never stops mourning the nameless boy whose grave lacks a marker.

Now Dellarobia is chafing at life’s confines. A season of heavy rains has left the Turnbow farm foundering. Despite a lucrative metalsmithing workshop and a contract with the Department of Transportation making highway barriers, Bear is deeply debt after taking out a balloon loan for equipment. Now the note, with its ominously large payment, has come due.

Cub gets occasional work hauling gravel, but money in the Turnbow household is frighteningly tight. Dellarobia purchases the family’s clothing at a used clothing shop and puts off a much-needed new pair of glasses. The couple keep the thermostat as low as they dare. They’re barely able to make the mortgage payments.

In one ironic scene, Dellarobia falls into conversation with an environmentalist, who is leafleting the area in an effort to educate the Appalachian citizenry about ecological stewardship. As the man ticks off points on his “Sustainability Pledge”, Dellarobia counters him.

“Bring your own Tupperware to a restaurant for leftovers…

I’ve not eaten at a restaurant for over two years.

Carry your own Nalgene bottle instead of buying bottled water.

Our well water is good. We wouldn’t pay for store-bought.

Okay… Try to reduce the intake of red meat in your diet.

Are you crazy? I’m trying to increase our intake of red meat.

Why is that?”

Because Dellarobia doesn’t have a freezer, because children cannot be fed on macaroni and cheese alone, because their sole source of meat is Hester’s culled lambs. Hearing this, “Mr. Akins went quiet.”

Crazed with boredom, Dellarobia indulges in flirtations with other men. She is in fact on a planned rendezvous with the telephone man—her first true attempt at adultery—when she is halted by the sight of countless monarch butterflies, roosting in a tree-filled hollow on Turnbow land. Dellarobia is not especially devout, but she is surrounded by Christians, and knows her Bible. The sight is exquisite, shocking, incomprehensible amid the dun November landscape. Dellarobia stares, decides the vision is some kind of sign, and heads homeward.

The appearance of monarchs in the Appalachians is fictional, but the rest of the monarch’s plight, fitted carefully into Flight Behavior’s plot, is true. Kingsolver trained as a biologist, and like Margaret Atwood, is a passionate advocate of ecological sustainability, using her writing to entertain while educating, thus sugarcoating an otherwise bitter pill.

Kingsolver’s monarchs in Appalachia were spurred by an actual event in Angangeuo, Mexico. Monarchs migrate annually to Angangeuo, where they draw numerous tourists and play a critical role in species survival. Unfortunately, logging and mining has undermined Angangeuo’s hillsides, and in February 2010, heavy rains caused catastrophic flooding and mudslides. Thirty people were killed; countless others lost everything and were displaced.

So were the monarchs. The flooding and mudslides have imperiled the species, a point Kingsolver gently explains throughout the novel, forcing even the most unwilling reader to understand the magnitude of loss.

(Monarchs also migrate to Northern California. I am watching several outside my window as I write.)

Dellarobia’s discovery is soon shared with her family: hoping to pay off the balloon loan, Bear has offered the Turnbow land to loggers. Dellarobia is horrified, as is the rest of the family when they realize the butterflies are roosting in the very trees Bear wants logged. Word spreads about the miraculous arrival, and soon the Turnbows are overrun with visitors. The media naturally picks up on the event, and Dellarobia finds herself an unwilling television and internet sensation.

The plot thickens with the arrival of Ovid Byron, a lepidopterist from Devary University. (In an amusing side note, Kingsolver had her family tree done, and used family names for almost all her characters, Ovid included.) To the intellectually starved Dellarobia, who has never left Feathertown, this tall, handsome Virgin Islands native is incredibly exotic and alluring.

For his part, Ovid is interested in Dellarobia’s observations. Appreciative of her keen eye and eagerness to learn, he hires her to work in the ad hoc laboratory he establishes in her yard. The experience is revelatory on numerous levels. Dellarobia’s native intelligence lends itself to meticulous lab work. She enjoys the company of the graduate students and postdocs who join Ovid. She also enjoys the money she earns for her labors — $13 hourly, hoarded in a secret bank account.

While laboratory work and interaction with Ovid and his students is deeply rewarding, it shines a harsh light on family realities. If Kingsolver is mistress at explaining complex scientific concepts, the whys and hows of butterfly migration patterns and why they matter to all of us, she is equally talented at parsing the human heart. Dellarobia knows herself fortunate in Cub: he is honest, hardworking, and goodhearted. Yet his intellectual limitations are inescapable. The couple have nothing in common but their children, and as Dellarobia becomes more deeply involved in Ovid’s work, her already weak marriage crumbles.

The saddest part is Cub himself, a man satisfied with a small farm, a large meal, and the television remote. He is incapable of anger at his incomprehensible wife.

Hester Turnbow, Cub’s mother, is in many ways worse than Cub. A sharp-tongued, humorless matriarch, she is indifferent to her grandchildren and unkind to her daughter-in-law. Dellarobia is mystified by Hester’s stingy ways—while grudgingly babysitting her grandchildren, she makes herself lunch but leaves the kids alone and hungry in another room. While Dellarobia struggles to decorate a Christmas tree, Hester, who has more ornaments than tree branches, offers nothing.

As Dellarobia’s world expands, she loses tolerance for Hester’s barbed criticisms. The formerly quiet daughter-in-law begins talking back, with surprising results. Hester turns out to be far more than a selfish mother-in-law; she is a bright woman with unexpected stores of invaluable knowledge and secret pains of her own.

Kingsolver turns her determined instruction on the media, often humorously. Television news and its rapacious desire for ratings rather than truth is personified by the saccharine reporter Tina Ultner, who does her best to massage reality. Dellarobia’s best friend Dovey, meanwhile, turns to Facebook and the internet both to learn the truth and rectify Ultner’s more egregious edits.

Kingsolver was raised in Kentucky and moved to a Virginia farm 2004 with her family. She is especially gifted at rendering the unique speech patterns of Appalachia into print without seeming twee or affected: instead, speaking patterns help define individuals and their place in a community. Any nascent writer could strip everything else from Flight Behavior and get a master lesson in dialogue.

As the temperature drops and the butterflies freeze, the unexpected monarch migration to Appalachia proves ecologically disastrous. Yet the butterflies’ arrival — and departure — cause a sea change in Dellarobia’s life, albeit an ironic one.

One may wish for better without fatal costs to other living things. Yet reading Flight Behavior means realizing the meek will not inherit the earth. Unless we listen to writers like Kingsolver, the meek, along with the rest of life on earth, will perish due to human selfishness.

RATING 9 / 10