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Barbara Kingsolver's 'Flight Behavior' Brilliantly Weaves Fiction And The Climate Change Crisis

Huge star of the fiction world brings her creative powers to a crisis facing humanity.

Barbara Kingsolver's novel,  "Flight Behavior," opens with a scenario that could have been ripped from a Harlequin Romance: Dellarobia Turnbow, a restless young housewife in rural Feathertown, Tenn., is walking into the woods to meet a man who is not her husband. Things take a turn, as they always do in fiction. But this turn is not the usual one. 

High on a mountainside, Dellarobia sees a strange and gorgeous phenomenon: a valley glowing orange, trees seemingly consumed by silent flames. 

At first Dellarobia thinks she has witnessed a miracle – "a vision of glory to stop her in the road." In fact, she learns, an enormous swarm of monarch butterflies has settled on her family's land, far from their usual wintering zones. Ovid Byron, a biologist, arrives to investigate whey they have veered off course. He believes climate change is altering the butterflies' migration path and may be steering them toward extinction. 

Doomed by human actions

To others in the novel, the butterflies are a blessing, a headline, a nuisance. Meanwhile, Byron and his graduate students have Dellarobia pondering other ideas: Drowning islands, disappearing coral reefs, an entire species possibly doomed by human actions. 

But although climate change has generated thousands of non-fiction books, it only appears in a handful of novels (some frequently-mentioned titles, such as Cormac McCarthy's 2007 bestseller, "The Road," are set in collapsing future worlds but don't specifically tie those conditions to climate shifts). Few novelists as prominent as Kingsolver have tacked climate change, to some  critics' dismay. And much of what exists isn't very good, according to research by  Adam Trexler, a post-graduate researcher at the University of Exeter in England. In principle, climate change should be a useful plot line: It has widespread and varied impacts, so stories about it can be set virtually anywhere. There's abundant scientific research to draw from. And the issue raises profound questions about time, the future, and human relationships with nature. 

The problem with climate change as a theme is that good fiction is always about people. So Kingsolver's book, which gets readers to empathize with a believable protagonist trying to understand the topic, may be more persuasive than any number of futuristic stories missing a strong character who can connect readers to the author's detailed, dystopian picture of a warming world. 

Critics' barbs

But even an author of Kingsolver's talents could not build a novel around climate change without attracting some barbs from critics.

"Flight Behavior" (HarperCollins, 2012) has received mostly positive reviews, but there are dissenters. The Los Angeles Times called the book "an environmentalist parable," and Slate termed it "fiction that largely serves to deliver information." Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles praised the book but questioned the need for more like it, arguing that "novels aren't particularly effective at articulating political positions or scientific facts."

Those views reflect a longstanding  debate among critics and scholars: Should fiction educate readers, or just tell good stories? Kingsolver and other A-list writers who have tackled climate change come down somewhere in the middle: they are passionately concerned about the issue, but say their job is only to raise questions, not serve up answers.

Another example

An early example,  T.C. Boyle's 2001 novel "A Friend of the Earth," cuts back and forth between the 1980s and a world ravaged by floods and drought in 2025. Boyle's hero, Tyrone Tierwater, is an aging former ecoterrorist who asserts that "to be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people," but ultimately he doubts that he has accomplished anything.

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