Flight Behavior

9780062124265_p0_v1_s260x420The butterfly effect, global warming, the hills of Appalachia, and a feisty heroine converge in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior to create her best story yet.

The opening lines of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book offer a caution and a tease:

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.  Innocence was no part of this.  She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace.”

In Fight Behavior, Kingsolver connects the yearning of a young bright Appalachian woman with missed opportunities to the crisis of global warming and the potential extinction of  a kaleidoscope of butterflies who have been misdirected by the miscues of nature.  The butterflies bring change and revelation in unexpected ways.

Dellarobia Turnbow had the potential to make something of herself, but she got pregnant in high school, married the local farm boy, and settled into an unsatisfying life, working the sheep farm with her in-laws – until one day, when she discovers a miracle that changes her life.  Monarch butterflies migrating south for the winter appeared in the green hills behind the farm, attaching themselves to the trees Dellarobia’s father-in-law had decided to cut down to manage his debts.  Kingsolver adroitly manages the confluence of the local gossips, their church, the persistent news woman, and a diligent scientist, as the presence of the monarch butterflies slowly becomes the focal point of the small rural town.

At first, the characters fall into stereotypical roles – the demanding mother-in-law, the well-meaning farmer husband, the egghead scientist – but Kingsolver forces the reader to shed all judgemental assumptions by revealing their underlying natures.  Dellarobia is as simmering and brilliant as the beautiful butterflies hanging from the trees – all ready to take flight unexpectedly.  Her children – six-year-old Preston, with his burgeoning interest in science fueled by a 1950s encyclopedia, and toddler Cordelia – at once tie her to her life while offering her a promise to make it better.  Ovid, the scientist who creates a camp behind the barn, and later establishes a lab on the farm that not only draws in Dellarobia but also allows her to exercise her intelligence and freedom.  He creates more questions than answers and through him, Kingsolver educates the reader.

The fight and flight behavior persists throughout the story as both Dellarobia and the monarchs struggle for survival.  Kingsolver neatly points to a hopeful future  before she ends with an unexpected blow that might not be a surprise if the reader is carefully attending to the consequences predicted when nature is ignored.  But I didn’t see it coming, and maybe that’s the point – none of us ever do.

A book with a message and characters who will stay with you.  As ever, Kingsolver does not disappoint.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Remember those sacred pools with waterfalls and lush foliage in the movies that could only be accessed by diving down into an underwater cave, holding your breath, and coming up on the other side – that’s a lacuna. You could be stuck there if you lost track of time and the tide came in – or you might be able to swim out the other side. Kingsolver uses the word “lacuna” as an analogy for Harrison Shepherd’s life as well as the gap between reality and what could be – in her latest novel – The Lacuna.

The Lacuna is Kingsolver’s first book since writing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – her promotion of healthy living off the land from her family’s experience – an environmentally correct plea ahead of its time, and complete with recipes. In Lacuna, although fiction, she delivers lessons again – this time political and historical.

Harrison Shepherd, whose mother is Mexican and father is American, records his life in diaries that steer the story through the Depression of the early 1930s in Washington, D.C., the lives of famous painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, the politics of Stalin and Trotsky. This is your life, Harrison Shepherd, from Mexico to North Carolina, from obscurity to fame to disgrace and back again.

This is not Bridget Jones Diary. Harrison Shepherd is a serious boy who becomes a sullen man. At first, the diary is an easy-to-follow recounting of growing up, but it soon morphs into a reporter’s third person account of historical events – educational but not compelling. Somehow, you will need to plough through the middle, and it won’t be easy, but here Kingsolver is laying the foundation for her real story.

The letters between Frida and Shepherd revive the action, and Kingsolver’s reviews of Shepherd as a new successful historical fiction writer will make you want to read his books and wonder why you are still muddling through hers. Eventually, the climax and denouement come – with more history lessons – by this time, it is the House on Un-Amercian Activities that plays a role in Shephard’s life. Kingsolver reminds us of one of the ugliest times in American history, as Harrison Shepherd’s life and career slowly come undone.

Not until the very end will you really know what this was all about – a life story about a lonely historical fiction writer who lives history and makes his own fiction – and the power of public opinion to change a life. It’s no wonder Harrison Shepherd feared people. The literal lacuna – that wonderful grotto – plays a part in the ending, but, by that time, you are as tired of people’s misdirected opinions as Shepherd.

Given the speed-of-light transmissions of celebrity foibles, the sound-bites taken out of context today, and the ease of knowing what is “right,” public assumptions are still a cautionary tale. Mrs. Brown, Shepherd’s assistant/secretary critiques his writing with her advice “…there’s no shame in a clever disguise…to say what you believe and still keep out of trouble…”. Are all writers hiding behind characters to say what they believe?

But sometimes a story is just a story. Robert Frost often cautioned the reader, “Don’t press… too hard. The real meaning is the most obvious meaning.”