” Just as the butterfly, I too will awaken in my own time. ” ~ Deborah Chaskin
I am mesmerized by monarch butterflies. They are charming creatures whose iridescent wings remind me of stained glass windows in an old church. More extraordinary than the graceful beauty of these winged wonders, is their unique phenomenon of migration. In North America, they overwinter east and west of the Rockies, in the mountains of Central Mexico and the central coast of California, respectively. It is amazing that they make the trajectory to the same destination where previous generations of monarchs have congregated, without ever having been there before. It is simply programmed in their DNA. Apart from the biological marvel of migration, their metamorphosis is a great symbol and inspiration for poets and artists.
I recently visited Pacific Grove in California, which is the winter migratory stop for hordes of monarch butterflies. Until recently, it was a veritable mecca for the monarchs. Now their numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate. While I was at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary there, a lady noticed my enthusiasm for the butterflies and suggested I read a book called Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. I hadn’t read any book by her although I had always been meaning to read The Poisonwood Bible. On my return, I immediately checked out the book from my library. Flight Behavior is a wonderful work of fiction which also addresses the pressing issue of global warming which results in migration collapse of the monarchs.
Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman who lives in the fictitious Appalachian town of Feathertown, Tennessee, is fleeing from her husband and family and is on her way to embark on her first extra- marital affair when she encounters a ‘miracle’ on the mountain where she is supposed to have a tryst with her would- be lover. She accidentally stumbles upon “a sea of orange fire”. The woman who was ready to take flight from her marriage is stopped in her tracks by this dazzling vision and returns home in a daze. She only realizes later that what she saw were millions upon millions of monarch butterflies. They were supposed to overwinter in Mexico as they usually do but instead take up residence on the Turnbow property in Tennessee, a site that could prove fatal to their survival. The locals interpret the off -course migratory pattern of the butterflies as divine intervention and Dellarobia, the witness to this supernatural phenomenon, returns, much to her surprise, to unexpected fame both in town and in the media.
As soon as I started reading the book, I was captivated by the poetic descriptions. Butterflies are beautiful creatures and Kingsolver endows them with even more beauty with her lyrical language which is as enchanting as the monarchs her protagonist happens upon:
“The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountains seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange glaze.”
“Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something. She could save herself.”
I was also intrigued by the unique name of the heroine- Dellarobia. Its meaning becomes clear as you read the novel. Dellarobia is a bright young woman leading a life of drudgery as a poor sheep farmer’s wife. Her husband Cub is a dull, unimaginative and passive man. They married at a young age due to an unexpected unpregnancy which subsequently resulted in a miscarriage. They probably wouldn’t have married otherwise. They stayed married and went on to have two more children, Preston and Cordelia. Cub is a decent and devoted man who cares about Dellarobia and their children. Yet she is unhappy as they are not compatible. Her in- laws who own the farm are struggling to keep it going. She maintains a cordial relationship with them but they have never warmed up to her. Her mother- in- law Hester is cold and sarcastic to her. Her only confidante and support is her best friend Dovey.
Dellarobia is a stay at home mother which “was the loneliest kind of lonely in which she was always and never by herself.” She has a roving eye and seems to be attracted easily to other men. She has had a lot of crushes but has not acted on them. How she longs to escape from the small town life, the gossip and the poverty!
Into her confined world, enters a charismatic African- American lepidopterist by the name of Ovid Byron who bears a likeness from his charming personality and erudition down to his initials to a former President although Kingsolver insists that any resemblance is fortuitous. He shows up in town with some post graduate students to study the erratic behavior of the butterflies and stays on the Turnbows’ farm. He sets up his RV in Dellarobia’s backyard and converts a sheep shed into a lab. Dellarobia herself is eventually hired to work on his project and her world view widens. Needless to say, our protagonist who has a propensity to develop crushes is immediately attracted to this young, intelligent and educated man. Along with giving her explanations about the behavior of butterflies, he also gives her butterflies in her stomach and makes her heart flutter.
Ovid Byron is the spokesperson through whom Kingsolver, who is a biologist herself, expounds her thoughts on climate change which could lead to the potential extinction of the butterflies. The only drawback to the novel is that at times Byron seems to be pontificating on the horrors of climate change which gives the novel a didactic and almost text book feel to it like it were a lecture from Biology 101.
Most of the people in the small town are suspicious of scientists. The locals interpret the vagaries of the weather as being in the hands of Providence. Biblical metaphors abound like Dellarobia’s Moses- like vision on the mountain and the massive floods reminiscent of Noah’s Ark to explain the people’s beliefs. There are two distinct worlds- the rural and the God fearing community rigid in its views and the urban and progressive one aware of the dangers of climate change and Dellarobia bridges the two worlds. People who live paycheck to paycheck couldn’t care less about the environment. There is a funny and ironical moment in the story when an environmental activist reads out from a list the different ways to lessen your carbon footprint. Although ignorant about science, Dellarobia and her neighbors are so poor that they don’t really even have a carbon footprint.
Dellarobia is willing to leave her children and run away with someone. She seems flighty and impetuous, ready to ruin her reputation as good wife and mother but at the same time she is a caring and responsible wife and mother. These are inherent contradictions faced by every woman. Some act on their impulses or are close to acting on them while most of them carry on in their constrained and unhappy lives.
Dellarobia like the butterflies is undergoing a metamorphosis of her own. Dr.Byron is the catalyst to this awakening but does he reciprocate the ardent feelings Dellarobia has for him? Will this shepherdess in southern Appalachia leave her husband and move on to greener pastures? Will she burst forth from her cocoon in a blaze of glory and spread her wings? There is a moving scene towards the end where she appreciates her husband and knows that he will always be there for her. You feel sorry for him as he is a good guy. They are two decent people who just happen to be wrong for each other. There are two small plot twists at the end that I did not fully anticipate and that enhanced my reading pleasure.
I found this book fascinating as it addresses the larger issue of climate change within the smaller human dramas of family life and relationships. It asks two important but distinct questions: Do we as human beings have a responsibility towards our planet? Does a woman have a right to lead a fulfilling life and to indulge in her own ‘flight behavior’? It makes us ponder over them with the metaphor of the monarch butterfly which brings the two together. And what results is a brilliant novel as bedazzling as clusters of amber and onyx butterflies hanging from trees!