Barbara Kingsolver returns to native ground in her fourteenth book, Flight Behavior. The novel is 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. Set in Appalachia, a region to which Kingsolver has returned often in both her acclaimed fiction and nonfiction, its suspenseful narrative traces the unforeseen impact of global concerns on the ordinary citizens of a rural community. As environmental, economic, and political issues converge, the residents of Feathertown, Tennessee, are forced to come to terms with their changing place in the larger world.
Dellarobia Turnbow, the engaging central character who sets things in motion, is ready for a change of any kind. A mother of young children, trapped in claustrophobic rural poverty, Dellarobia long ago repressed any ambitions or promise of her own. Her husband, Cub — whom she married as a pregnant teenager — is a kind but passive man who cedes all decisions to his domineering parents who own the sheep farm where they all live and work. Dellarobia submits to the mind-numbing duties of her life, but for the whole of her marriage has been bedeviled by fantasies of illicit affairs.
At the end of a gloomy, relentlessly rainy summer and autumn she finds herself at the limits of her endurance. In the novel’s opening pages she strikes out recklessly, thrilled and terrified, having agreed for the first time to an actual tryst with another man. Dellarobia is on her way up the mountain to a secluded hunting shed when she is stopped in her tracks by what she believes to be a miracle: an entire forested valley alight with cold orange flame. She flees back to her life, keeping her strange secret, but soon learns her father-in-law plans to clear-cut the forest for urgently-needed cash. In an impossible bind, Dellarobia finds a way to convince her husband and father-in-law to survey the forest before it is logged, without revealing her secret or why she discovered it. When the family treks up the mountain the truth is revealed, and the revelation is less miraculous — and more disturbingly unnatural — than she could have guessed.
The spectacular and freakish eruption of nature summons Dr. Ovid Byron, a charismatic scientist who arrives at the farm intent on investigation. Dellarobia and her five-year-old son Preston are enthralled by the exotic entomologist and his work. But others in the community, including farmers who have lost crops to the weather’s new extremes, are less receptive to his talk of global climate change and its repercussions for natural systems and human affairs. Everyone in the neighborhood and beyond, from religious fundamentalists to environmentalists and the ratings-conscious media, brings a point of view and a penchant for shaping the evidence to suit an agenda. The ordeal quickly grows beyond the boundaries of family, community and nation, carving its lasting effects on Dellarobia, forcing her to examine everything she has ever trusted as truth.