Flight Behavior

By Barbara Kingsolver

86,986 ratings - 3.78* vote

Flight Behavior takes on one of the most contentious subjects of our time: climate change. With a deft and versatile empathy Kingsolver dissects the motives that drive denial and belief in a precarious world.Flight Behavior transfixes from its opening scene, when a young woman's narrow experience of life is thrown wide with the force of a raging fire. In the lyrical langua Flight Behavior takes on one of the most contentious subjects of our time: climate change. With a deft and versatile

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Book details

Hardcover, 436 pages
November 6th 2012 by HarperCollins

(first published November 1st 2012)

Original Title
Flight Behavior
0062124269 (ISBN13: 9780062124265)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Will Byrnes

In 2004 Barbara Kingsolver moved from Tucson, where she had lived since 1978, to southern Appalachia. This marked a return to her roots, migrating back to an ancestral place, like the butterflies in her latest novel, Flight Behavior might once have done. She must feel right at home there as she has written a wonderful book set in the fictional Appalachian town of Feathertown, Tennessee. The flight of the title refers not only to the arrival of hordes of butterflies, but flights of various sorts undertaken by her characters.

Barbara Kingsolver - image from Envirolit

Like Moses, Dellarobia Turnbow climbs a mountain and sees a vision. Instead of a flaming bush she sees a flaming forest, alive with millions of Monarch butterflies. As with Moses, what she saw changed her life. Of course her motivation was a bit different. Big Mo was seeking guidance from God on how to lead his people. Dellarobia was leaving her husband and two kids to take up with her latest romantic entanglement, looking to fly rather than to lead. But visions have a way of changing people, or maybe enhancing them.
Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something. She could save herself.
Not really understanding what it was she had seen, Dell takes the event as a sign and changes her course. Change can be good. The novel opens with
A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.
What is worth keeping and what should be tossed? In one’s life and in the wider world?

We see this world through Dellarobia’s eyes. She makes a careful examination of her life, in an environment in which unexamined is the way to go. She is a bright woman of 27, married as a result of an adolescent mistake to a decent, if unimaginative man, with two kids, staying in a small house on her in-laws’ property, stuck in her world with not much to look forward to.

An unseasonable season of rain (forty days worth, maybe?) has left the area soaked, even more impoverished and vulnerable than usual.
The tree was intact, not cut or broken by the wind. What a waste. After maybe centuries of survival it had simply let go of the ground, the wide fist of its root mass ripped up and resting naked above a clay gash in the wooded mountainside. Like herself, it just seemed to have come loose from its station in life. After so much rain upon rain this was happening all over the county…
But this new, winged, arrival has caused some excitement. One may wonder what millions of Monarch butterflies are doing gathering en masse in rural Tennessee. When word of the wondrous visitation gets out, interests of all sorts try to interpret its significance and some try bending the event to their own purposes. Some see simple beauty. Those with a churchy bent see the hand of God. Those of a scientific inclination seek to find out why the butterflies chose this place for their nest, without regard to a higher power, seeing an alarming disruption in nature. These critters are supposed to gather in Michoacan, in Mexico, right? What are they doing here? Some property owners look to make a little cash by leading visitors. Some are eager to see the butterflies gone, so they can cut and sell the lumber on that land. Eco-warriors seek to use the event as a tool for spreading their message.

Kingsolver shows a wide range of perspectives on the event. She brings in the strong presence of a heavy-hitter scientist with an ironic, artsy name, Ovid Byron. He not only sets up shop to study the phenomenon, complete with a camper and crew, but sees Dellarobia’s intelligence and curiosity and encourages her, even hiring her to help with his project. Kingsolver got her masters and began her working life in biology, after all, not creative writing. It is clear that with her expertise as a biologist it is her scientist words Ovid speaks when explaining how the biology here works. And it is activist Kingsolver’s words he speaks when he takes on the media.

Can it be a coincidence that when red-haired (University of Tennessee orange) Dell and African American Ovid Byron come together they match the Monarch coloration?

The major underlying natural issue addressed here is global warming, how changes to the global environment can result in significant changes in peoples’ lives. The book opens with talk of the unnatural, relentless rain that has been watering remote Feathertown. What causes this? What happens when it rains so much? The same thing in Appalachia as has happened in places far away. Nothing good. It was surprising to learn that excessive rain can damage even the wool on living sheep.

What happens when you are not where you should be? If you are a person, it might mean unhappiness, a feeling of frustration and failure. If you are, say, a species of butterfly, it might mean an absolute existential crisis and an attempt to survive by setting up shop in a new, not-yet-completely-destroyed location.

Offering a local perspective is one of the primary elements of the novel. Barbara Kingsolver writes about places she knows. For the African setting of Poisonwood Bible, she drew on the time she had lived there with her family. But she was raised in Kentucky. And it is clear that she has a pretty good sense of the locals. Part of Kingsolver’s purpose here (we believe) is to offer up an image of what life is like for real people in Appalachia.

In recent years ecologically sustainable development in environmentally endangered areas has shifted methodology. These days attempts are made to engage local residents, and give them a reason for becoming involved with and gaining from protection efforts. Simply trotting out experts and telling the locals to change their evil ways is not exactly effective. That dynamic is given a nice, if somewhat staged look. A straw man of a northeastern liberal bent descends on the town and starts handing out leaflets urging people to take the pledge. In this case that means promising to change a whole list of behaviors. Turns out that this list is mostly irrelevant to the locals. Things like “eat less meat” when the problem for so many here is to get enough. His list urges a promise to re-cycle, to people who shop for clothing at the second hand shop, and so on. It is a brilliant way of making it clear that it is worth actually knowing something about local life before preaching.

It is a difficult life folks lead in Feathertown, a place in which the science teacher offers his students the option of shooting hoops instead of learning science, a place where a Christmas shopping trip is to the second hand store. What of the farmer unable to pay his mortgage unless he sells off wooded land to clear-cutters? What of the income lost because wool has been damaged by so much rain? Kingsolver points out the limitations on the lives of the locals, and how even those with abilities and dreams beyond what can be offered locally are confronted with roadblocks should they try to spread their wings. Her attention is not solely on the hardships of the place. There is also respect. She makes it very clear that even though they might not call it science, farmers practice an applied version, requiring as much scientific method as the search for a cancer cure. She points out the rugged beauty of a thing like hands-on sheep-shearing and clearly mourns its passing. Kingsolver actually raises sheep, so the craft may not be quite dead yet.

Kingsolver offers a nice cast of characters, to whom she gives substance. Dell has a snarky sense of humor that I particularly enjoyed. Hubby, Cub, is a decent sort, and we get a sense of him, limitations and all. Their son, Preston, is the kind of kid most intelligent parents dream of, an eager, hungry learner. The scenes of Dellarobia’s with her bff, Dovey, are invigorating. And it is fascinating to see the change over time in the relationship Dell has with her mother-in-law, Hester, and in learning the secret that Hester has so carefully hidden.

Kingsolver ingeniously counterpoints the nature events that define the story with the experiences of her characters. Dellarobia searches for the right place to be just as the butterflies do. There are parallels to the butterflies’ experience of having their homes washed away in floods. And, like the beautiful invaders, Dell must undergo a metamorphosis, gathering sustenance where she can find it, in order to wend her way to the next stage in her life.

Sometimes reflection alters one’s view of a film, a piece of music or a book. On the first run through, I felt that at times the book was a bit preachy. Kingsolver does drag out disposable characters to make a point here and there. But the process of reviewing causes one to look closer and with that effort my appreciation for the book grew. Initially I was taken with some passing humor. While there certainly is humor here, much of it centered around the doings at a local church, some of which might resonate for viewers of GCB, this is a serious book, addressing serious matters. The humor leavens the tale, but this is about our world becoming unhinged and about people finding their way to their best places. Kingsolver offers a caring, nuanced look at life in Appalachia and raises our awareness of what real global warming looks like to actual people. If you haven’t already gotten your hands on this volume, fly to your bookstore before it is too late. Ok, OK, I know it is not on sale until November, but you can still flutter over to the bookstore or library and put in an order, or a hold.

PS - For what it’s worth I see Amy Adams or maybe Jennifer Lawrence as Dellarobia, Lance Rettick as Ovid, Melissa Leo as Hester.

PPS – I am not much taken with the cover design, at least the one on the ARE. It consists of hundreds of tear-shapes that do not much suggest flight to me, but rather leaves floating on a pond, or even reptile scales. What am I missing here?

=============================EXTRA STUFF

The author’s personal site

Items of Interest
-----From the Butterfly website, on the Michoacan habitat
-----From the Texas Butterfly Ranch, on the reduction in the Monarchs’ travel numbers
-----January 25, 2019 - NY Times - Are We Watching the End of the Monarch Butterfly?

Reviews of other Kingsolver books
-----The Poisonwood Bible
-----The Lacuna

Christina (A Reader of Fictions)

I love Barbara Kingsolver. All of her books automatically go on my to-read list, because she's brilliant. One of the things I love about her is how unique her books are from one another. She writes different kind of characters in disparate environments and focuses on varying themes. I find it so impressive when authors can reinvent themselves so often. Flight Behavior is my fourth Kingsolver book. Unfortunately, unlike the others, this one failed to meet my expectations.

My first Kingsolver read was The Bean Trees, which centers around a girl desperate to get out of her small, hick town where most of the girls are pregnant before they even leave high school. She wants to be one of the ones to leave and never come back. Through some odd circumstances, she finds herself stuck raising a baby that's not hers, sort of falling into motherhood. The plot itself didn't have much appeal for me as a reader, but the book was utterly compelling and I loved it so much. Kingsolver's powerful writing and intriguing, quirky characters pulled me in despite myself.

In Flight Behavior, Kingsolver again focuses on a heroine who had dreams of escaping her hick town, but this one didn't make it. Dellarobia hoped to go to college, but wound up pregnant instead. Even worse, the baby boy died, leaving her stuck in a marriage with a man she doesn't respect and reliant on judgmental in-laws. Her unhappiness manifests itself in a wandering eye; she has had a number of crushes on men, flirted with the idea of an affair. The hook of the novel is when Dellarobia heads up the mountain to meet with one of her men and cheat on her husband. On her way, she sees the forest burning with butterflies, and interprets that as a sign from God that she needs to go back to her life and make good.

Dellarobia's life certainly is unfortunate, and it's such a shame that her promise was wasted on this small town, where kids only take two years of rudimentary math in school. Even the bright ones aren't given enough education to be able to get out of town. I feel for her, but I didn't connect with her or any of the other characters. In all of Kingsolver's previous works, I was held rapt in unfamiliar worlds by the power of the characters and the writing, but these characters simply failed to grab onto my heart and take hold.

Another problem too is that, while the writing is beautiful as always (and shows that you can not write in dialect but still achieve a southern feel), the story feels a bit like a combination of two of the Kingsolver books I'd previously read: The Bean Trees and Prodigal Summer. Revisiting old themes, while not what I know Kingsolver for, can be done well, but, in this case, it felt repetitive and less well done.

Flight Behavior feels like it was written not so much for the characters as to be the vehicle for a message: global warming is real and it's not just about changing temperatures. Now, of course, it's alright for books to have a moral, a message, but I don't like to feel like I'm being beat over the head with it or being talked down to.

The butterflies Dellarobia witnessed normally wintered in Mexico, but moved to her small town because of environmental changes and now the whole population of Monarch butterflies could be in danger of extinction. A lepidopterist comes to study them, and works with and teaches Dellarobia, highlighting her boredom with her husband and her desire for something bigger. Because of her rudimentary education, the reader receives both the scientific explanations for everything and the 'country' version, a cute little metaphor for everything that's happening. This felt a bit insulting to me, as though this setting was chosen to allow for global warming to be explained in a simplified way that the stupid disbelievers could fathom. Prodigal Summer also dealt with the importance of taking care of the environment, but did not make me feel so lectured.

Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh, but I'm disappointed to have not enjoyed a book by one of my favorite authors. Her writing is still gorgeous, but the book is massive, slow, and filled with a lot of minutiae about Dellarobia's life I could have done without. Surely others will appreciate this one (most of the reviews on Goodreads are highly flattering and NPR approves), but it fell flat with me.

Jeanette (Ms. Feisty)

Redneck environmentalism. Now there's a contradiction in terms.
Kingsolver's writing is up to its usual high standards, and her character development is outstanding. She just tried to stuff way too many things into one sausage casing. The result is something tough to chew, sometimes bland, and slow to digest.

In this novel, BK was fixated on long conversations while the characters are shopping. There was one with Cub and Dellarobia in the dollar store, and another with Dovey and Dellarobia in the secondhand store. The conversations and the shopping that accompanied them felt endless. It was almost as bad as listening to all the idiots who natter away on their cell phones in public places.
Rating = 2.5 stars


Barbara Kingsolver is one of those rare writers with whom you know what you are getting before you open the first page.

You know, for example, that the prose is going to be literary, dense, and luscious (take this descriptive line: Summer’s heat had never really arrived, nor the cold in turn, and everything living now seemed to yearn for sun with the anguish of the unloved.”) You know that the content will focus on some kind of social justice, biodiversity, or environmental issue. You know, too, that at some point, Ms. Kingsolver will cross the line into authorial intrusion based on her passion for the subject she is writing on.

But you keep coming back for more. At least, I do. There is something mesmerizing about a Barbara Kingsolver novel, and something refreshing about a writer who combines a solid scientific background with stunning prose.

This book is entitled Flight Behavior, and for good reason. It opens with a young Appalachian woman – Dellarobia Turnbow – ready to take flight from her shotgun marriage and closed-in life with two young children. On her way up the mountain to engage in an affair, she views an astounding natural phenomenon that changes everything for her.

The core of the novel focuses on that phenomenon,centering on the migratory patterns of the bright orange Monarch butterfly, usually viewed only in Mexico. The topic is climate change and Ms. Kingsolver slashes through the obtuse definitions with language anyone can understand. Dellarobia is paired thematically with a Harvard-educated scientist Ovid Byron, whose lifework is studying the butterflies. He says, “If you woke up one morning, Dellarobia, and one of your eyes had moved to the side of your head, how would you feel about that?” That, in effect, is the same as the butterflies migrating to Appalachia.

There is much to love about this novel. Dellarobia is authentically portrayed: a woman who is confined in a life she has outgrown, complete with two very genuinely created toddlers and a best friend who is not similarly constrained. The duality of science and religion is also tackled. While Barbara Kingsolver makes no secret of how she feels about those who piously say, “Weather is the Lord’s business” while polluting our environment, she also concedes to the majesty and mystery of nature, culling in parallels from Job and Noah.

Ultimately, Ms. Kingsolver leaves us with the most important question of all: “what was the use of saving a world that had no soul left in it. Continents without butterflies, seas without coral reef…What if all human effort amounted basically to saving a place for ourselves to park?” The interconnectedness of all nature’s creatures – and our true place in our own lives and in the lives of the universe – is a message that lives on in this reader’s mind long after the last page is closed.

Amy Warrick

Yes, Ms. Kingsolver knows her way around a pretty turn of phrase.

In this book, however, she uses her pretty language to dress up an unlikeable bitch and then she harangues us - on and on - about global warming, the sins of buying shoddy goods made overseas, the shameful state of rural education, hmmm, did I miss anything? People make SPEECHES in this book, as if it were conversation.

And then she has the less-bitchy friend of the bitch woman throw in old chestnuts from church bulletin boards, which, trust me, you've read before, and they weren't that funny the first time.

Dude. Those of us who read your books are the choir. Quit preaching at US.


The author has a real point to make here: global warming is bad, logging is bad, they're killing the monarch butterfly population and Attention Must Be Paid. That message is interwoven with the story of Dellarobia Turnbow, a poor farmer's wife who used to have dreams of college and something better.

Dellarobia married Cub at 17, pregnant with his child. She miscarried, and rather than leave Cub and continue with her plans for college she stays, eventually having Preston and Cordelia. One day, thinking she was so fed up that she was ready to have an affair with a much younger man, she walks up the hill from their farm and - it's a miracle. The valley at the top of the hill is alive with "flame". This sight turns her around, convinced that she should keep on the path she's already on.

We learn that this "field of flame" is really an aberration: millions(?) of monarch butterflies, who usually winter in Mexico, have descended on this valley in Tennessee. Soon it's national news, and then Dr. Ovid Byron moves in to an RV parked near their barn. Ovid (and his graduate students, post-docs and volunteers) study monarchs, occasionally pontificating on the horrors of global warming and the loss of the monarch. It's at those moments that the book lost me.

Dellarobia's journey was interesting, the monarchs a little less so. When characters start to serve as mouthpieces or deliver great scads of polemic, I tend to tune out. That's not to say that there isn't something to worry about, that I'm a denier of climate change, just that it felt as though Ovid could have been edited down a little more. The scene with him and the tv reporter? Totally unnecessary.

The ending also felt off: when did Dellarobia and Cub come to the decisions they did? What about her new insights into Hester and Bear? It was rushed, and had less Big Message been packed in perhaps we could have had a better ending.

ARC provided by publisher.

switterbug (Betsey)

When I first heard the title to Barbara Kingsolver’s seventh novel, I thought of airplanes. Such is the orientation of the 21st century. Well, prepare to step into the rural, economically depressed farming and sheepherding town of Feathertown, Tennessee, where the shepherds flock on Sundays to commune with Pastor Bobby Ogle, their beloved and kind preacher and spiritual leader. This is the kind of repressed, technologically challenged community who believes that weather is determined by God, not by science, and that the past year’s flooding was decreed by the heavens and can only be reversed by prayer.

In this story, the survival techniques of the Monarch butterfly, those bright orange, delicate but hardy creatures, and that of a diminutive, flame-haired young woman are inextricably intertwined and analogous. The Monarchs have had an atypical flight behavior this year. Floods and landslides led to felled trees everywhere in their usual roosting place in Mexico. Subsequently, they migrated to Feathertown to overwinter. Why Feathertown? That’s the big question that one team of scientists comes to examine. However, they are challenged by the residents, who are skeptical of science-based answers to climate-based questions. In the meantime, residents of Feathertown need to fill their coffers.

Dellarobia Turnbow, 27, has her own kind of flight behaviors, spurred on by too much domestic confinement too soon, and now she is primed to flee, restive—flying from pillar to post, as her mother always said. Unlike the rest of the townspeople, she wasn’t as inspired by religion.

“She was a…911 Christian: in the event of an emergency, call the Lord…Jesus was a more reliable backer, less likely to drink himself unconscious or get liver cancer. No wonder people chose Him as their number one friend. But if the chemistry wasn’t there, what could you do?”

Married in a shotgun wedding ten years ago, she lost a preemie before having two more children. Her husband, Cub, is a large, docile and complacent man, controlled and essentially managed by his mirthless parents. Dellarobia knows that to live in this town is to be under a microscope; she was the untamed child once, and that wildness is rearing its head again, her dormancy coming to an end.

The first chapter, “The Measure of a Man,” is the catalyst for both Dellarobia’s evolution and the arc of the story. (If you want to experience it fresh and unspoiled, avoid reading the jacket blurb.) Kingsolver’s time-honored talent for yoking the struggle and turmoil of man with the flux and beauty of nature is vividly drawn. She builds the final, dramatic scene of the chapter to a man/nature composition that is at once distilled and dynamic, serene and dramatic. Abundant, also, are Biblical allusions that reflect the community’s ethos.

Kingsolver is an agent of social change. She established the Bellwether prize in literature in order to award writers who effect change for the good of humanity. She is also a scholar with postgrad degrees in biology and environmental science. You are going to encounter a stout measure of activism in her writing, covering such issues as the degradation of the planet and its natural resources and the contentious class system of society. If her political evocations have bothered you in the past, they are likely to bother you here, too.

Nevertheless, the author weaves in her social issues with finesse, for the most part, and her vivid portrait of Feathertown is sympathetic and informed. Initially, she seems to lampoon the pious, science-fearing populace, but she gradually tenders the reader to an understanding of the religious community. She slowly develops dialogue between urban, rural, and academic minds and concerns. The biblical allusions are also ripe and fitting, relevant to the inhabitants of Feathertown and the way they see the “miracle” of nature. Dellarobia represents a connection between both worlds.

This is the second book I have read that highlights the migratory patterns and survival modes of the Monarch butterfly, and braids in the journey of self-actualization and coming to terms with loss. Sanctuary Line, by Jane Urquhart, is also socially and environmentally conscious, and is an apt companion piece to this book.

The clash of family, science, religion, media, politics, and environment takes Dellarobia on a quest beyond the emotional and intellectual borders she has known all her life, on a journey of discovery and transformation. Like a butterfly out of the chrysalis, she must follow the path of her future.

4.5 stars


Beautiful, moving, and articulate. Kingsolver has absolutely accomplished what she set out to do with this novel, that is, to write fiction that takes climate change for its backdrop--the first book of its kind, and momentous in doing such.

As Kingsolver puts it, poor, rural, Southerners are the people in the United States most likely to be affected by climate change. Unfortunately, they are also the demographic least likely to have any accurate information about what it is, and what that means for them, and the world. This book is amazing in its treatment of both academic science and the emotional, "how does it apply to me now?" sides of things. A wonderful portrait that treats with respect the rural poor, the immigrants who flee various catastrophic "natural" distasters due to climate change, and the scientists working so hard to uncover how and why our world is changing, and what we can do to save it.

A must read for every modern reader.

Anne (on semi-hiatus)

A very difficult book to rate. I almost gave up on it, but became engaged around page 100. Though not completely engaged. It's just not that interesting, though some of the writing is very good. Not Kingsolver's best. 3 1/2 stars.


Dellarobia Turnbow, an unhappy young farm wife living in Feathertown in Appalachia, is about to embark on an extramarital affair when the sight of a blazing orange forest changes her mind. It turns out the startling sight is caused by millions of Monarch butterflies covering the trees, far from their usual winter home in Mexico.

The biological oddity attracts widespread attention, and theories about its cause range from an act of God to a world gone haywire from climate change.

Dr. Ovid Byron, a butterfly expert, comes to Feathertown and sets up a temporary lab to study the insects.

Dellarobia, prevented from attending college by a shot-gun marriage at age 17, gets a job helping Dr. Byron and becomes engrossed in the research. This, in turn, magnifies the tediousness and poverty of Dellarobia's everyday life.

The book is partly a treatise on the dire consequences of climate change, and partly a character study of the Feathertown people, who tend to reject scientific explanations for changes in nature, regarding them as God's will.

The book didn't have a strong plot in the usual sense but the characters were interesting and the dangers of climate change were boldly drawn.

It's not my favorite Barbara Kingsolver book, but it's well-written and worth reading.

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