By Barbara Kingsolver
I love the opportunities that writing a blog gives me as a reader. I didn't get into it for the free books and I most certainly do not take the few books I get for granted, but it's always nice for me, living overseas, to get an opportunity to read a hardcopy (as opposed to a Kindle version) of a book that I would otherwise have to wait years to get here in Taiwan. Case in point: Flight Behavior. Since reading The Poisonwood Bible a couple of years ago, I have been extremely keen to delve into Barbara Kingsolver's catalog. Alas, the gods of access have conspired against me until recently when I got the opportunity to participate in the blog tour for Kingsolver's most recent recent novel. As an avid reader and a fan of Barbara Kingsolver, I couldn't be more appreciative to the good people at TLC Book Tours.
Flight Behavior answers the proverbial question: If a butterfly flaps its wings in rural Tennessee do unhappy housewives fly the coop? Dellarobia Turnbow is the aforementioned unhappy housewife on the cusp of throwing it all away. Married early and suffering from a severe case of seven-year itch, she accidentally stumbles upon the new and alarmingly inappropriate winter roost of the bulk of North America's monarch butterflies on a stretch of undeveloped land behind her home. To make matters worse. the land, which is owned by her overbearing father-in-law, is set to be sold to an irresponsible logging company (in literature, is there any other kind?) in order to save the family farm. But the arrival of a scientific research team determined to study the butterflies causes a deep divide not only among the citizens of Feathertown but also within the Turnbow family itself.
What ensues is a litany of local conflicts that act as a microcosm for the growing divide within American society. Democrat vs. Republican. Science vs. religion. Rural vs. urban. Rich vs. poor. It's a veritable cornucopia of Man vs. Man conflicts and that is even before we get into all the man vs. nature and man vs. himself subtexts. In true Kingsolver fashion (or at least from the perspective of someone who has read The Poisonwood Bible) these divides are examined with a maturity and clarity that is rare among contemporary writers. Rather than simply taking a specific side and hammering her own opinion home, Kingsolver relishes in the role of devil's advocate and gives a fair shake to every side of the coin (well, except the media. Kingsolver saves all a special vehemence just for them). The end result is a rational, open dialog between sides that are not used to rational, open dialogs.
In true Richard Russo style, Kingsolver seems to thrive in telling stories that occur in small, tightly-knit communities. In The Poisonwood Bible, the Price family are living in a small village in the middle of the Congo, far removed from the workings of the modern world. In Flight Behavior she maintains the same sort of isolation by setting the narrative in a small, deeply religious Tennessee town that sees the bare minimum of outsiders. It would seem that Kingsolver enjoys crafting narratives with closed systems.
But one must examine her motivations for maintaining such pristine character cultures. In using small, closed communities, Kingsolver is able to limit the input/output of her characters and introduce specific environmental stresses to her story in an attempt to forecast specific reactions among her carefully constructed characters. Like the lepidopterists that inhabit the laboratories of Flight Behavior, Kingsolver approaches her narratives with the mindful deliberation of a scientist, ensuring that no outside contaminants will sully her instruments prior to the data read out.
And this is the reason for Kingsolver's success. In approaching a narrative in much the same way in which a scientist might approach a problem, Kingsolver is able to do away with outside contaminants and get to the root of an issue. I have heard more than a few people complain to me about the way in which Kingsolver crafts her characters. They are often one-dimensional personalities. That many of her characters can be reduced to single issues (he is a climate change denier) or single character traits (she is an uneducated racist). That may be true, but in Kingsolver's world (as opposed to the previously mentioned Richard Russo), stereotypes are a Kingsolver-esque narrative necessity in that they highlight the very real divides that plague our own communities. But Kingsolver fleshes out the stereotypes and makes it difficult to take specific sides along the way.
But let's not let all this analysis get in the way of a good story. For anyone expecting a repeat of The Poisonwood Bible, you will be sorely disappointed. In that respect, Flight Behavior is decidedly mediocre fare from one of America's great contemporary writers. But still, Barbara Kingsolver's mediocre is most writer's genius, so not to worry. As in real life, there is an ambiguity in everything that occurs in this narrative. Despite the absolutes in which the characters speak, events happen and the characters are forced to compromise their expectations and morals. And just like real life, nobody gets exactly what they want. Make no mistake, Flight Behavior is not a quick moving narrative. Rather, it simmers like a rump roast in a hot country kitchen. And considering the immediacy of many of its environmental themes, Flight Behavior behaves itself by not moving any faster than it should. No more than one would expect if it were propelled entirely on the strength of a butterfly's wings.