Flight Behavior: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver (New York: Harper Collins, 2012. 448 pp)

Born in 1955 in rural Kentucky, Barbara Kingsolver earned biology degrees from DePauw University and the University of Arizona. Beginning in 1985, Kingsolver began writing as a freelancer and author. Starting with The Bean Trees in 1988 and Lacuna functioning as the most recent bookend in 2009, Kingsolver’s works have been translated into more than two dozen languages and adopted into high school curriculum. Kingsolver contributes essays and reviews in many renowned newspapers and magazines. She has received numerous awards including, the national book award of South Africa, the James Beard Award, and the National Humanities Medal. Kingsolver lives on a farm in Southern Appalachia with her husband, Steven Hopp.

Blunt Doesn’t Always Work

When people hear the name, Jonathan Edwards, they think of his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” A standard hellfire-and-brimstone lecture, this heavy handed approach has become synonymous with Edwards, the Great Awakening, and Reformed theology. Interestingly, this sermon does not define Edwards’ comprehensive body of work, but its forceful, “preachy” premise has been off-putting to the many high school students who experience the text in their American history courses.

Time and time again, I have found blunt and forceful speeches to be ineffective. Even if the content is true, blunt and unloving statements inevitably fall on deaf ears.

Sadly, despite gorgeous prose and compelling character development, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior drowns underneath too much preaching about the importance of environmental care.

A Life Altered

Set in rural Appalachia, Flight Behavior follows its protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, as she questions her plight in life and ponders drastic change. A star student in an otherwise miserable school system, Dellarobia’s plans alter significantly when she becomes pregnant.

A marriage and two children later, Dellarobia remains stuck as a stay-at-home mom while her husband, Cub, works sparingly for minimum wage.

Dellarobia loves Cub, but she does not respect him because he has no drive, considering an ideal life to be the one situated in front of a television, channel surfing through low-brow sitcoms and reality television. Kingsolver notes,

“As habitually as a prayer, Dellarobia wished she were a different wife, for whom Cub’s good heart outweighed his bad grammar. Some sickness made her deride his simplicity” (187).

Even more, her mother- and father-in-law, Hester and Bear, hold Dellarobia at arm’s length, considering her an “other” even though she is legally part of the family.

Given her circumstances, Dellarobia wants to throw her life away. She fantasizes the touch of another man, and these compulsions lead her up the Appalachian mountain in her backyard for an illicit rendezvous.

“A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise” (1).

But quickly, Kingsolver’s narrative turns on a dime. Dellarobia notices an odd occurrence in these mountains, a visually stunning and somewhat dolorous environmental anomaly.

The discovery of this phenomenon brings national news teams and world renowned scientists to town and forces Dellarobia into the spotlight. What follows is a tried-and-true dilemma between the left and the right, science and faith, conservationism and capitalism, the enlightened and the dim-witted.

The Novel as a Soapbox

Sadly, the beautiful prose and compelling narrative found on the pages of Flight Behavior takes a back seat to the soapbox. Truthfully, this book is better understood as a manifesto for environmental stewardship. Its premise suggests we have plundered the earth and we are now paying the consequences. The scientists are grieving, the townspeople are hiding their heads under a rock, and Dellarobia must somehow choose what to believe about the earth as a whole, and her home in particular.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe fully in the stewardship of the earth. Our resources are finite and we cannot expect to grow continually at a pace that overstretches our means. But Flight Behavior won’t change anyone’s mind on the subject. A climate change denier will react much like the average high school student after reading Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” They will balk at the heavy-handed approach; they will shut off from the foundational principles upon which the statements were made; and they will become even more difficult to convince.

If your goal is true change, this narrative won’t do it. It’s too bad Kingsolver chose to speak so openly about environmental degradation; the topic overruns an excellent premise for a book.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5

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