Flight Behavior: A Beautiful Butterfly Trapped in the Wrong Place

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Last year on New Year’s Eve- my birthday- Shane and I were in Angangueo, in Michoacan, Mexico. Our Mexico road trip just so happened to coincide with the yearly migration of the monarch butterflies. It’s hard to notice them at first, but in this next picture you’ll see that the dark shapes on the trees are actually the millions of butterflies sagging down the tree’s branches!

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The trees are not the only thing worth looking at while in the Santuario Sierra Chincua where the butterflies spend the winter– the ground is littered with butterflies, dead and alive. One must be mindful of foot placement!

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The timing of the release of Barbara Kingsolver’s new bestseller Flight Behavior in the same year as my own visit to the butterfly sanctuary was uncanny. Kingsolver is already responsible for some of my lifetime favorite books – The Lacuna, The Poisonwood Bible, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and now in Flight Behavior, I feel I understand the book so well, because I have seen the monarchs with my own eyes.

In Kingsolver’s novel, the monarchs have taken a wrong turn due to climate change, and end up on the farm of Dellarobia’s in-laws in Tennessee. The monarchs being in the wrong place and having lost their way serve as the metaphor for the entire story– Dellarobia herself, like the monarchs, is a mismatch to her current set of circumstances due to outside pressures beyond her control. She should be using her intelligence in a university or professional setting, but a surprise pregnancy landed her years ago with Cub on his family’s farm. Having no parents of her own and already struggling with poverty, high school-aged Dellarobia resigns herself to her fate and have two children with Cub over the course of the next ten years; however, she never feels at home.

I do not wish to spoil the novel’s plot for potential readers, so instead I will focus on three characters in the story who play integral roles in Dellarobia’s life:

1. Mrs. Lake – the teacher

Dellarobia seems to have experienced understimulation in an underfunded public school system and appears to have found all of her teachers uninspiring– however, she references a Mrs. Lake at various points throughout the novel as someone who exposed her to good reading. It is likely that this inspired Dellarobia’s articulate speech and vocabulary that is more expansive than the local vernacular. Though Mrs. Lake is only one person, it is important not to downplay the huge influence she had on Dellarobia’s life.

2. Dovey – the best girlfriend

Dovey is the perennial deus ex machina in the story. In scenes when Dellarobia becomes particularly desperate or frustrated, Dovey appears, either physically or in the form of a text, usually with a borderline-inappropriate humorous photo accompanying. This friend from childhood knows Dellarobia better than anyone and is always there for her. I don’t want to provide a plot spoiler, but it’s important to mention that Dovey acts as a safety net to Dellarobia and is like a godmother / aunt to Dellarobia’s children. She is an unconditional friend who simply wants the best for Dellarobia. There are few friends in the world who want the best for others without necessarily desiring something specific in return for themselves.

3. Dr. Ovid Byron – the professional mentor

Ovid turns Dellarobia’s life upside down, setting up his scientific lab on the farm property and living in the trailer in her backyard. Dellarobia catches a glimpse of Ovid naked in his trailer, and this, along with the professional opportunities he offers her, reawakens Dellarobia to some of her life’s possibilities that she had long written off. Ovid vastly expands Dellarobia’s world view and opens up a world of potential.

Throughout the story, it is easy to forget that Dellarobia and Cub are a couple only in their late 20s. They are my age, yet when I read about them I imagine people past middle age– they are stuck in the cycle of poverty and do not even love each other. They merely exist, and they have not even any scrap of happiness at all. Kingsolver paints such a bleak picture of their financial situation and negative family life, that I do not understand how they can get out of bed in the morning. I suppose the children must be fed. Beyond this, Dellarobia’s life has no purpose and no goals- I believe that a person needs something to look towards in order to “keep on keeping on.”

We should ask ourselves if we can be a Mrs. Lake, a Dovey, or an Ovid to someone in need. Sometimes we already are, but don’t know it. Oftentimes we underestimate the positive impact we can have on the outcome of a person’s life. A teacher like Mrs. Lake can be the sole source of inspiration for a student thereby awakening their intellectual curiosity, and a friend like Dovey can encourage others through hard times, even with something as simple as text messages and funny pictures. In a professional setting, encouragement from a boss like Ovid can keep a co-worker going through a difficult project or can lead them to take a risk and work towards professional development, or a new career. What an honor it would be to play that kind of important role and in so doing help another person!

Anyone in a delicate emotional state should prepare themselves before picking up Flight Behavior- it is a most poignant and heartbreaking depiction of the “modern” America that the majority of Americans must currently live in– a land of missed opportunities, economic pressures, climate change, “natural” disasters- actually caused by human wastefulness, and overall feelings of entrapment. The underlying irony in the novel is that it is the poor who pay the most for the environmentally unsustainable lifestyles of the privileged.

The book is truly an edge-of-your-seat experience- Kingsolver depicts the climax of a young woman’s life when all the mistakes of her romantic past and missed opportunities in a decrepit educational system come to butt heads with a rapidly disintegrating environmental and economic ecosystem. I waited until the last two pages to see what Dellarobia would do in her situation. Kingsolver had me guessing to the end. If you’re looking for the all-encompassing “all-American” novel of the 21st century, you need look no further. Any woman, man, child, rich or poor, phd or uneducated can relate to one of Dellarobia’s many and multifacted struggles.

Please click here to watch this video that has been trending recently about American misperception of United States’ wealth distribution; seeing how little resources Dellarobia has at her disposal magnifies her struggles and augments her entrapment.

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3 Comments on “Flight Behavior: A Beautiful Butterfly Trapped in the Wrong Place”

  1. thebigbookofdating December 1, 2013 at 00:19 #

    This is so cool, great post, they are such lovely creatures

  2. Seth December 2, 2013 at 06:31 #

    Great review! On the topic of income inequality, you should see Robert Reich’s documentary Inequality for All.

    • Marisa LaValette December 2, 2013 at 08:18 #

      Hi Seth! Thanks for reading as always! Inequality for All is high up on my list of things to watch when I finally get some free time. Talk to you soon!

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