Dellarobia Turnbow has put on her second-hand boots and is climbing the steep wooded hillside behind her remote Appalachian home to start a love affair, “risking everything, pointing her little chin up that hill and walking unarmed into the shoot-out of whatever might be.”
But it is not the affair that is going to transform her life. Before she can even meet up with her would-be lover, she is brought to a standstill by the valley blazing “with its own internal flame” of “trees turned to fire” “a valley of lights”.
The orange that Dellarobia first thought was fire is millions and millions of orange Monarch Butterflies hanging in vast living curtains from the trees. To some locals they are unwanted intruders lying in the way of plans to raze the hillsides to earn desperately needed money. Others see them as a potential tourism attraction.
But to the scientists they are a portend of environmental disaster. The butterflies would normally be congregating in Mexico but clear felling their habitation has disrupted their life cycle. They have instead being lulled into a false sense of security by the warm summer months. And soon, the season change will create a harsh climate that will inevitable annihilate them, potential fatally disrupting the biological chain of which they are a part.
The arrival of the butterflies changes everything. It brings national interest. Doomsayers and TV pundits. And it draws dynamic entomologist and ecologist Ovid Byron with his army of enthused student volunteers desperately documenting the phenomenon. It draws Dellarobia into an alien world which, as she adapts, threatens her existing one.
A teenage pregnancy and rushed marriage had killed off her early ambitions of fleeing the claustrophobic community for College or University. Now, there is little evidence of the individual, of Dellarobia. She sees herself only as wife of Cub, mother of Preston and Cordelia, unwelcome daughter-in-law to the cold and critical Hester.
As the scientists transform her physical world she is awed by her young son’s intellectual engagement in the environmental battle being waged in his backyard. She delights in his fascination and begins to dream of what his future might hold. She is surprised and alarmed by her own transformation as she gets a paid job with the team, money that bales the family out of financial difficulties but fuels the discontent in her circumstances that she had learned to suppress.
This is not just a story of the physical, environmental dangers of climate change. The arrival of the butterflies is changing the balance within Dellarobia’s personal environment, changes that mean nothing can be the same again.
This is Kingsolver’s 14th book and in it she goes back to her early roots as a scientist. But this is no finger-wagging didactic text on the dangers of climate change. There are many humorous moments woven throughout the narrative, like the arrival of the eco-evangelist with his greenie pledge to give up things that Dellarobia and her family have no chance of ever being able to afford.
This is a highly-accessible book about the fragility of our environment but also about the tussle between religion and science, education and ignorance, the fear of change and the positive power of change.
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver won the Orange Prize and is published by faber and faber.