This question, from my Book Group last Saturday, has haunted me — someone who writes regularly about my response to climate change with the certainty that I am (mostly) preaching to the choir, and a small one at that. As Winston Churchill famously asserted, Americans are a people ‘divided by a common language.’ Of course, it is much larger issue than regional dialects and accents. Miscommunication among diverse groups who do not understand each other (or attempt to) is a commonplace of a multicultural society and one that deserves more attention than it gets.
Failure to communicate is but one strand in the weave of Flight Behavior, which Kingsolver’s official site describes as: “… a heady exploration of climate change, along with media exploitation and political opportunism that lie at the root of what may be our most urgent modern dilemma.” But it is an important theme. Who is not reading this book is as important as who is, because a good story like this one has the power to convince when facts alone fail (and we are talking about an alarmingly high percentage of skeptics), and to motivate those who are informed and have yet to act in any meaningful way, no small number.
With her trademark empathy for the people she writes about, Kingsolver shows us what one impact of climate change looks like to a community in rural Appalachia that is 1. Out of the loop, and therefore deeply suspicious of outsiders (climate scientists, media, environmentalists toting ‘sustainability pledges”), and 2. Likely to be upended by its effects. She describes what happens when the larger world – researchers, media, logging interests, climate activists, the curious public — comes to fictional Feathertown, Tennessee. We begin to see, as the wisdom traditions teach, there is no Other.
“Cultural differences are really exciting territory,” Kingsolver said in an interview, “not just for the literature but for learning in general, because sparks fly when there’s friction among different viewpoints. People invest themselves differently in the same set of truths.” So to Rev. Bobby and his congregation, the unprecedented migration of monarch butterflies takes on religious significance. To scientist, Ovid Byron, and his research team, it is another distress signal from a world out of whack. For the Womyn group of knitters, it is an opportunity to speak for nature. With whom do we identify?
Like the other strong female characters of Kingsolver’s best-selling fiction, Dellarobbia Turnbow, is the voice of Flight Behavior. We are sympathetic witnesses as her understanding of what the butterfly phenomenon means, catches up with ours. When our Book Club leader asked what we had learned from the novel, there was a thoughtful silence. We only know what we can know. So it comes as no surprise that the media will manipulate the protagonist’s story and ignore the experts. We are familiar with the power of YouTube to save (or wreck) reputations. We know Dellarobbia is smart, but it is the unexpected changes within her that make this a compelling narrative, and provide a drop of hope. There is her growing self-respect and newfound passion for research, her appreciation for the quiet strength of her husband, and for her mother-in-law, whose rich knowledge of native plant life provides an unexpected bond. And here was a big takeaway for me: in Kingsolver’s Feathertown, despite difficult physical labor, limited career options, crushing debt, and abysmal schooling which guarantees more of the same, we find a community with admirable habits of generativity, interdependence and thrift. Valuable lessons, all.
“The biotic consequences of climate change tax the descriptive powers, not to mention the courage, of those who know most about it,” Kingsolver writes in her Author’s Note. With Flight Behavior, her training as a scientist and narrative gift nudge her readers in the right direction if we are willing to go. I would like to believe that there are hundreds of readers, like the members of the Second Saturday Book Club, who having read and discussed Flight Behavior, are on to the more important question: what then shall we do?