“I don’t understand how any good art could fail to be political,” American writer Barbara Kingsolver has said, and who could doubt her, her own art having encompassed, among other things, the politics of native American rights, single motherhood, the environment and, in her most famous book, The Poisonwood Bible, the legacy of colonialism – and American interference – in the former Belgian Congo.
She has stayed true to form in her latest, Flight Behavior, the first novel I know of – possibly the first novel – to deal specifically, determinedly and overtly with climate change.
We begin in flames and end in flood, which suits the biblical (and scientific) parameters of a novel whose setting in Tennessee’s Appalachian mountains is the nexus of a God-fearing religious literalism and an untaught but unbudging righteousness that finds expression in the view that “weather is the Lord’s business.”
Dellarobia Turnbow, as the novel opens, is set on her own course of business, and it is anything but the Lord’s. A young, bored mother of two, at home on the sheep farm her in-laws own, she is quietly going berserk in the way I imagine most young mothers at home might do, “an underemployed mind clocking in and out of a scene that smelled of urine and mashed bananas.”
Lean as a whippet, smart as a whip, the former high-school wildcat with the flame-coloured hair (“somewhere between a stop sign and a sunset”) is ripe for breakout, and she resolves on the oldest form of it: an affair with a younger local man that even in her desperation she knows will destroy her family, her reputation, very likely the rest of her life. She is on her way to their trysting place, a hunting shack in the mountains, when she is turned back by a forest fire that isn’t a forest fire but a vision of fire, and it sears her soul. “Something happened,” the not-particularly-religious Dellarobia tells her not-particularly-religious friend: “I was blind, but now I see.”
In fact, the strange, heatless conflagration that so thrills and awes her is a throng of monarch butterflies, “an unbounded, uncountable congregation of flame-coloured insects” that have settled, extraordinarily and inexplicably, on the mountain ridge out back of her home. Her father-in-law plans to clear-cut the place but the unprecedented phenomenon momentarily stays his hand, and the back-of-the-woods hamlet of Feathertown, Tenn., is soon the drawing card for a congeries of environmentalists, activists, tourists and the media – along with Ovid Byron, an entomologist from New Mexico who understands that, far from being Dellarobia’s miracle of fire and magic, “the butterflies were a symptom of vast biological malignancies.”
At the Turnbows’ invitation, he sets himself up in an RV in their yard and a lab in the barn, and what begins as an investigation to further the reaches of scientific knowledge ends as a learning experience all round. Dellarobia is grieved and aggrieved that what to her is an almost otherworldly eruption of natural beauty is in fact an aberration and a portent of ill, while Ovid is close to astounded that educational backwaters such as the one in which he finds himself can exist in the 21st century. “Christ on the cross, the rebel flag on mudflaps, science illiteracy. That would be us,” Dellarobia says bitterly, defensive and resigned at once.
If anyone can pull off a philippic against climate change in fictional form, it would be Kingsolver, who considers herself – who is – a biologist as well as a novelist. When the calm yet impassioned Ovid delivers his fervent expositions on global warming (“Hurricanes reaching a hundred miles inland, wind speeds we’ve never seen. Deserts on fire. In New Mexico we are seeing the inferno. Texas is worse”) we know it is Kingsolver speaking. We accord her the courtesy of ignoring this, however, because she has couched them in an exchange between two characters whose believability – names notwithstanding – she has established at the outset. (“I know some writers begin with character and plot,” Kingsolver told the Guardian in 2000. “I invent characters to serve my theme.”)
Virginia Woolf once tut-tutted Charlotte Brontë for having, as Woolf saw it, let anger occlude her cool artist’s vision and mar the fiery Jane Eyre. I thought it nonsense when I read it and think it nonsense now, but she has a point. Characters had better be big enough to swallow an author’s emotion – to serve her theme – or what you have is not a novel but a policy paper.
Dellarobia, for all her leanness, is that big. By the end of the novel, this woman whose experience and background will be foreign to many, if not most (if not all) of the people who will be reading about her, discovers that large truth the privileged take for granted: “Educated people had powers.” By which point we’re invested enough to feel it only just that she acquire some, too.
Kathleen Byrne is a Toronto writer and editor who frequently reviews for Globe Books.