Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Me vs. Book Club

As part of our "folks with funny names series," I present you with the heroine of Barbara Kingsolver's newest novel, Flight Behavior: Dellarobia Turnbow.  That's about all the mockery I have for the book, but I have to say that almost every time her name was mentioned, I was startled again by how weird it is.  It's meant to make you see how it would be hard to take her seriously, and I can't argue with that.

My book club considered this a 2-to-3 star book.  They thought it was slow and heavy-handed in its Message about Global Warming.  I can't argue too much with their specific points, but my feelings about the book were very different; I really enjoyed it, as I almost always enjoy Kingsolver's books.

First, I love the way she writes about rural people.  They are frequently poor, uneducated, stubborn, and hard, and their worlds contain all of the ugliness that poverty and ignorance can result in.  But they are not unintelligent, not evil, not some foreign, less-than "others."  The characters--Cub, Hester, Dellarobia, Bear, even their neighbors and friends--are individuals with their own histories and motivations, and their virtues are not just the "noble savage" virtues that a lot of "positive" images of rural people display.  I feel like she acknowledges their humanity without sugarcoating the difficulty and even brutality that can be a factor of living in rural poverty. 

The story in this book is about a flock of migrating monarch butterflies that end up in the wrong place for the winter.  Instead of a comfortable mountain in Mexico, they're in Tennessee, which is too cold for them.  They're discovered by Dellarobia, a somewhat dissatisfied farm wife, and become a scientific, local, and national phenomenon.  The monarchs' visit to the Turnbow forest stirs up a lot of issues--Dellarobia's crush on the scientist who comes to study them, her growing intellectual life and how that conflicts with the path she's been on, the small town vs. wider world thing, money troubles and logging rights, etc.  But over all of this, driven home and home and home again, is climate change.

The winter is wet and rainy and strange.  The butterflies are off course, when we don't even know how they ever kept their course.  The world is going to hell in an ecological handbasket, and the red states won't listen!  This is hammered home explicitly by angry rants, patient explanations, heated arguments.  Climate change is real and urgent and bad, and Kingsolver is letting you know that in no uncertain terms.  Repeatedly.  And this--justifiably, I think--detracted from the enjoyment most of my book club found here.

For me, though, I felt like climate change was the setting on which the personal story played out.  I didn't feel preached to, maybe because I've read enough other Kingsolver books (The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle--wow, that's kind of a lot) to feel comfortable with her sermon-like way of telling a story.  I feel like she writes like she's lecturing even when she's not, and I like that--her certainty, her firmness, her earnest conviction.  Honestly, the hardest part for me is that she does love nature and lavish descriptions thereof; sometimes she can get going on natural description and leave me in the dust.

I do think that part of my reaction here was around the setting and the people.  The town I grew up in was nothing like the town here, but I grew up on a farm that my parents ran with my grandparents, and my grandparents were rigid people in many ways.  Dellarobia's relationship with and perceptions of Hester and Bear were very familiar to me, and reading especially about Dellarobia and Hester was quite poignant for me.

I really liked the book.  It was long, and took a long time to read, but I enjoyed every minute.  I guess this one is for Kingsolver fans--and I guess I'm a big one.

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