Barbara Kingsolver has written a number of novels and I have read most of them. She wrote The Lacuna, Prodigal Summer, The Poisonwood Bible, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, The Bean Trees, and her current novel, Flight Behavior. Kingsolver is a queen of dialogue and this current novel includes humorous dialogue. She even adds humor and character to narrative passages.
“The sheep in the field below the Turnbow family land, the white frame house she had not slept outside for a single night in the ten-plus years of marriage: that was pretty much it. The wide-screen version of her life since age seventeen, Not including the brief hospital excursions, childbirth related. Apparently today was the day she walked out of the picture.” p. 2
This is what Dellarobia Turnbow sees when she turns back for a second from her headlong walk up the mountain to satisfy a lust she has developed for a handsome, young telephone man. (Lot’s wife turning to salt is mentioned, but Dellarobia doesn’t turn to salt.) Instead, as she continues to climb, she finds the landscape altered. Large brown bulbous structures are attached to all the fir trees. They appear to be some kind of fungus. When she can finally look out over the edge of the mountain she sees orange everywhere. It shimmers and waves as if the woods are on fire. She is afraid that there is a fire and she will be killed on the mountain top with her guilty conscience and everyone will know she tried to commit adultery which now seems not to be in the cards for today.
Her husband is Cub, a gentle soul who will probably never actually grow up. Her children are Cordelia and Preston. Her in-laws are on the land next door, Bear and Hester. We are at the southern end of the Applachians, in Kentucky, a place that figures in several of Kingsolver’s stories and, in fact, where she lives today.
“She stared at Cub, trying to find holy matrimony in there, pushing her way back through the weeds as she always did. To what she’d seen in him when she was still looking: the narrow face and long chin that gave an impression of leanness, despite his burgeoning middle. The thick lashes and dark, ruler-straight eyebrows like an interrupted pencil line across his forehead, behind the pale forelock that hung in his eyes. The cause of their marriage had been conspicuous at the wedding, but she’d gone a little foggy on earlier motives. She recalled a nice truck, other plans canceled, an ounce of pity maybe. A boy named Damon who’d kissed her half to death and then left her for dead, on the rebound. And there stood Cub, with his rock-steady faith that she knew more than he did, in any situation outside of automotive repair. His bewildered sexual gratitude, as near a thing to religious awe as a girl of her station could likely inspire. These boyish things made him lovable. But you could run out of gas on boyish, that was the thing. A message that should be engraved in every woman’s wedding band.” P. 19
We see Dellarobia’s discontent with her marriage which she has almost just sabotaged for a fling. But that orange “fire” on the mountain top turns out to be just about the entire population of monarch butterflies for the continents of North and South America. And they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. At first it seems like a blessing and Dellarobia loves them for their beauty. Until she meets Ovid Byron, an environmental scientist born on the island of St. Thomas with his devastatingly exotic appearance and accent. Of course, we know Dellarobia will fall in love with him but that is not at all the point of this story. As Ovid studies the butterflies to discover why they are in the Southern Appalachians instead of in Mexico where they should be, Dellarobia learns about her own intelligence and her desire to contribute to life in her own right instead of just as someone’s wife. Ovid employs her to work in his lab and tells her she has a knack for science. This is better than the telephone man.
All right, it is a book about climate change, global warming, extinction of species and the possible extinction of mankind. Kingsolver is an environmentalist and the topic makes an appearance in most of her books. I enjoy fiction and I enjoy Kingsolver’s characters and her ability to capture modern cultural subsets, often quite out of the mainstream. She tells a good story. I also believe in climate change and all of the above so the combination of a good story and attempts to make humans feel guilty about what we are doing to our planet don’t really bother me. I liked Dellarobia and her family. I like Ovid and all the people, scientists and tourists, who wander around the Turnbow mountaintop to observe, in their separate ways, the phenomenon of the monarchs. I will complain that the book was too long. I was ready for Kingsolver to wrap it up awhile before page 416. But the characters and the book are memorable and I was, for a time, set down in Dellarobia’s Appalachian world, which is like mine in some ways, but also, oh so different. And who doesn’t love monarch butterflies and a great canary in the mine story. If you are a climate change denier this book should be for you, but you probably won’t want to read it.