I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver in 2008 and The Lacuna, which I wrote about a few times in 2010. I deeply appreciate the way she is able to dive into the heart of a people and place, their sense of self and home, and challenge her readers to reconsider the way they are processing the world. Her latest, Flight Behavior, is a book centered around monarch butterflies who have left their usual flight pattern and roosted for the season on the hill of a small, working farm in the south, bringing beauty and wonder to the locals, but alarm to scientists who come to study the displaced creatures. The two opposing ideas Kingsolver explores are: “If fight or flight is the only choice, it’s way easier to fly” and “A person can face up to a difficult truth, or run away from it,” (322).
The main character, Dellarobia, is a smart but unhappy woman who married young when she got pregnant and lost the opportunity to be one of the few in her town to go on to college. Her husband’s family runs the farm where she lives and in the beginning of the story, she is on her way to cheat on her husband, ready to flee her reality. She is stopped in her tracks when she comes across thousands of monarch butterflies and is stunned, believing it a miracle and a sign that she needs to return to her family. She becomes friends with the scientist who leads the study of the monarchs and uses the family’s barn as lab for him and his students, and eventually does some work for them as well, giving her a new vision for what she wants from her life.
Flight behavior is not only applicable to Dellarobia. Her family has decisions to make in terms of its failing farm, the scientists have to decide the extent to which they can fight for their beloved monarchs, and the butterflies themselves stand as an environmental metaphor–whether it is possible to fight against the climate changes that have altered their regular flight behavior. All of these “fight or flight” conflicts give the reader a much deeper understanding of people, and honestly, Kingsolver is able to paint a beautiful picture of the educated scientists and their brand of being good to the environment side by side with Dellarobia’s small town, mostly uneducated brand that comes by way of necessity. She writes against the stereotype of ignorance, and allows us to know the people behind it, which I think is a life lesson for us all.
By the end of the story, I realized this is a book about knowing when and how to fight or fly, and discerning when each one is important, necessary. It was fascinating to follow Dellarobia’s flight and flight decisions: as she got to know and understand herself more, her reasonings changed. Ultimately does end up flying, but in a completely different way than in the beginning, when she was walking up the hill to have an affair. It is more on level with what it looked like to watch the monarchs all using their wings.