“In American life,” wrote Meridel LeSueur in the 1930s, “you hear things happening in a far and muffled way.” She was referring to the labor conflicts of the time, but she also suggests that awareness of class division and conflict has always been muffled by a national ideology of competitive individualism. Today, despite instant mass communication, climate change, too, seems to be happening in a far and muffled way. Except when it comes roaring ashore like Super Storm Sandy, our responses to a rolling catastrophe are subsumed in the daily business of getting ahead or getting by. Or awareness is actively muffled by climate deniers’ disinformation. Of course, LeSueur implies, good writing can pierce the veil of ideology and make large themes like class and climate vivid and consequential.
Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior does that and more: it explores the connections between class and climate in a way that is rare in North American fiction. It’s the story of a Tennessee farm family coping with the effects on their livelihood of a depressed economy and weird weather patterns. The protagonist is Dellarobia Turnbow, a twenty-something stay-at-home mother of two with an urge for “flight” from her marriage and possibly towards a college education. The book’s culture is intensely local. We get to know Feathertown and its people, the Turnbows, and their farm intimately.
At the same time, Kingsolver creates expanding circles of connection and consequence, linking local and global effects of climate change. She also dramatizes the discourses — science, religion, politics — that claim to interpret these effects. At the novel’s center, intertwined with Dellarobia’s story, is the anomalous migration of millions of monarch butterflies to the hills above her house. Local evangelicals hail the arrival of these amazing creatures as a sign of God’s blessing. Scientists see their attempt to winter in Tennessee as a symptom of a biological crisis, jeopardizing more than the butterflies’ survival.
“The problem with writing a novel about climate change—and Kingsolver is not the first to attempt it—is that the issue is fundamentally abstract,” writes Michelle Dean in Slate. Indeed most climate fiction is sci-fi, setting the calamity in future worlds. But Flight Behavior shows changes happening here and now. On the Turnbow’s sheep farm persistent rain has saturated pastures, spoiled the hay crop, and messed up lambing season. A neighbor’s orchard has failed to produce, roads have been washed out, and worse flooding is on the way. Like the marks of the Great Recession on the novel – sketchy employment, second-hand shopping — these events are based in actuality. Torrential rains and a deadly “1000 year flood” hit Tennessee in 2010.
Kingsolver’s one leap into speculative fiction is her invention of the butterflies’ mis-migration to southern Appalachia. Monarchs still make the trip to Mexico, though their winter habitat in the mountains of Michoaclán is threatened. Heavy rains on those mountains produced flooding and landslides that destroyed the town of Angangueo, killing at least thirty people — also in 2010. Kingsolver further connects events in Tennessee and Mexico through the immigration of the Delgado family from Angangueo to Feathertown, where the father works as a day laborer. Through a series of halting exchanges between two working-class families on the front lines of climate change, we get a glimpse of the larger disaster, across continents. These biological and economic migrations, beautifully narrated by Kingsolver, illuminate deep links between environmental degradation and increasing social precarity.
Slate reviewer Dean, though skeptical of a novel’s capacity to instruct on such issues, acknowledges “Kingsolver’s frankly exceptional skill at rendering the smaller human dramas that result from the big, societal themes she’s embracing.” These dramas are enacted in witty conversations, often between people of different classes. Sometimes they talk past each other, as when an earnest eco-campaigner tries to get Dellarobia to sign his “Sustainability Pledge,” which includes a commitment to “fly less.” She has, of course, never flown at all. In fact Dellarobia’s “life-style” is involuntarily about as low-carbon as you can get in the US. Nevertheless, she is informed, ”You people need to get on board” the green agenda. The prevailing local view of climate problems — “Weather is the Lord’s business” – also comes in for some acerbic satire.
Beyond skewering the relatively easy targets of liberal elitism and hick superstition, Kingsolver stages some lovely scenes of differently classed characters actually talking together. They challenge and inform each other, especially about class positions and attendant belief systems. Taking her first job since waiting tables as a teenager, Dellarobia works as a field assistant in the makeshift lab of entomologist Ovid Byron, a university professor visiting Feathertown to study what may become a major species extinction. He is stumped as to why the locals don’t believe in climate science or value the knowledge produced by a college education. She explains how class works: “I’d say the teams get picked and then the beliefs get handed around.” While Team Camo gets “the right to bear arms” and “taking care of our own,” she says, “the environment got assigned to the other team. Worries like that are not for people like us.” Ovid replies, “Drought and floods are not worries for farmers?”
Dellarobia realizes he “would have no inkling of the great slog of effort that ties up people like her in the day-to-day.” The novel gives us more than an inkling of that great slog, but it also pushes Ovid beyond his credo that “All we can do is measure and count. That is the task of science.” Dellarobia teases out his grief at what they are witnessing, his yearning to intervene. In a scene of high tragi-comedy, Ovid finally unloads on a glossy TV reporter for pretending that there’s still a “debate” about climate change. Without getting heavy-handed about it, the novel urges both the responsibility of scientists to put what they know in terms people can grasp, and the responsibility of journalists to report what science shows us.
Reviewers of Kingsolver’s novel mostly comment either on her treatment of climate change – some finding it deft and others preachy – or on her treatment of rural poverty – some finding it empathic and others condescending. They don’t notice the skill with which she is narrating the connections between the accelerating climate crisis and the struggles of people, mostly poor and working-class, living with its effects. For that achievement, Flight Behavior is a worthy fictional companion to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. It is also provides a highly entertaining and provocative reading experience.
University of Pittsburgh