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Wednesday, June 18, 2014


If you've read Barbara Kingsolver's novels, you must be a fan.  I've no doubt about that.  She places her characters in unusual situations highlighting the diversity of people and their problems and often their relationships with the natural world.   Kingsolver also shows that despite humanity's diversity there exists a binding similarity.  Interesting.  This sounds stilted, but it is the uniqueness of Kingsolver's approach that brings me back time and again and makes me relate to situations that are far afield from anything I have ever or will experience. 

My last Kingsolver read was the totally enthralling The Lacuna, and this time I share Flight Behavior with you. 

The definition of “flight” offers myriad possibilities.  Are we going to read about the natural world as in birds or are we talking about people or machines?  What members of the natural world?  What kind of people?  What kind of machines?

In Flight Behavior we read about different kinds of flight.  We read about intentional flight, behavioral flight, and potential flight.  We read about the intended and unintended consequences as well as the personal costs one might pay.  The masterful manner in which Kingsolver weaves all this into a compellingly interesting tapestry lures and captures the reader's interest. 

Take a poor rural teenage girl with a desire to escape and attend college who finds herself pregnant by a young man who decides on the honorable route and marries her.  His family supplies a house for them and a job for him on their sheep farm—a barely subsistence living.  Two children later, her life is unbearable stifling.  She is attracted to other men although she never cheats on her husband.  But she intends to,  and she climbs the mountain behind her house to meet the latest object of her desires while mulling over the claustrophobic perimeters of her life and wondering whether this act will cause catastrophic self-destructive consequences. She doesn't care.  

As she approaches the point of rendezvous, she  beholds a magical and frighteningly exquisite sight.  Looking into the tree-filled valley, she is stunned by the way it sparkles and flares up as if on fire.  Light fills every bit of airspace and clings to the trees.  It takes her a few eerie minutes to realize that this is not fire but a valley of mystical light. At the moment she interprets the vision as a miracle and a sign.  The spectacle has meaning she cannot  define, but her mind whirls as she turns around and hurries home, her rendezvous instantaneously cancelled.  The valley of light stops her from throwing away her life.  

Dellarobia keeps her discovery to herself until she learns that her father-in-law, Bear, intends to allow a company to clear-cut log the mountain.  She knows she cannot allow the destruction of the trees but cannot explain the trees aflame in the light up there.  She has no words to describe and share what she witnessed.  Somehow she convinces her husband, Cub, to take men to look at the mountain and the forest.  In less than an hour the men are back to collect their wives to show them the sight that dazzled them as it dazzled Dellarobia.

This time Dellarobia is able to identify the flashing lights.  They are butterflies, dense and thick.  They fill the sky and make the light glow golden.  They cling to the trees.  The fire she had seen was the flashing sunlight on the wings of butterflies.  The fire is alive.  The butterflies are creatures in flight sparkling in their journey.

Cub is the first to pounce on the butterflies as religious signs.  “Mother, Dad, listen here.  This is a miracle.  She had a vision of this...She foretold of it.  After the shearing we were up talking in the barn, and she vowed and declared we had to come up here...She said there was something big up here in our own back yard.”

The results of sharing her discovery with others poke holes in the walls confining Dellarobia and her children.  Sharing does more than poke; it takes a sledgehammer to those walls and opens up her small, insulated world to outsiders from across continents—all with interpretations of the butterflies' meaning.

You might imagine some of those interpretations, but I guarantee you will be nodding or clicking your tongue as you see the ramifications of Dellarobia's discovery.   

Perhaps I would have been happier had Barbara Kingsolver been less political in her approach, but I never reached a point where I wanted to put this book down.  When Kingsolver mixes people of different backgrounds in one situation, she is at her best, and the results entirely ring true.  A intrusive outsider handing out pledge-to-save-the-earth leaflets at the top of her mountain, once calls Dellarobia “you people.”  The outsider knows best—he thinks.  Nuff said 

Take one very fed up woman from a rural southern Appalachia hamlet, throw in some unusual weather and a life-changing experience.  Couple that with Kingsolver's magnificent control of the English language and elevated descriptions, and you will surely come away with a little deeper understanding of the forces that impact our lives for better or for worse.

Read Flight Behavior if you are a Barbara Kingsolver fan.  It you haven't experienced flying on the wings of her outstanding prose, take a flyer on Flight Behavior.

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