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Kingsolver tackles climate change in engaging way

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Flight Behavior

By Barbara Kingsolver

HarperCollins, 448 pages, $29

In 14 disparate books, including the essay collection Small Wonder and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel The Poisonwood Bible, American Barbara Kingsolver has proved herself a writer with a social conscience.

Among many consistent themes, both her fiction and non-fiction explore the unequal distribution of wealth, indigenous peoples, the environment, science versus faith, pollution and poverty.

She also is the founder of the Bellwether Prize, awarded annually to a previously unpublished novelist for a book focused on a social-justice topic.

True to form, Kingsolver's newest novel demonstrates her customary concerns, tackling the subject of climate change in an extraordinary engaging and emotional way.

Flight Behavior is set in on a sheep farm in the Appalachia area of rural Tennessee and spans a period of a few months in the life of 28-year-old stay-at-home mom Dellarobia Turnbow.

After 10 years raising her children in poverty and relying on meagre handouts from her in-laws, Dellarobia is restless, unhappy and desperate for excitement.

Although adoring of her children, she has discovered that "being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself."

The excitement that Dellarobia craves arrives unexpectedly when she discovers that the woods behind her home are ablaze in orange flames. The swath of orange turns out to be an influx of millions of Monarch butterflies that have inexplicably migrated north from Mexico, alighting en masse on trees that are about to be logged.

Suddenly, Dellarobia finds herself at the centre of a national and controversial story, as journalists, scientists, students, environmentalists and the devout descend on the farm to argue about what the Monarch migration means and how or if the neighbouring town should try to benefit from it.

Among them is Ovid Byron, a biology professor acutely aware that the odd butterfly migration is a harbinger of environmental devastation.

He sets up a lab in Dellarobia's barn in order to study the butterflies, and becomes a mentor to both Dellarobia and her young son Preston.

Patiently and without judgment, Byron teaches them about the plight of the Monarch, the impact of climate change and why it is that "summer's heat had never really arrived, nor the cold in its turn, and everything in living now seemed to yearn for sun with the anguish of the unloved."

Through his attention, Dellarobia learns as much about herself as she does about her environment.

Like Taylor Greer in Kingsolver's debut novel, The Bean Trees, Dellarobia is a vivid, convincing and unforgettable character. Unsophisticated, caustic and sarcastic, she also is clever, ambitious, witty, intuitive and genuine.

Readers will cheer for her, even as they lament the portended destruction of the place she calls home.

Kingsolver herself grew up in rural Kentucky and lives in southwestern Virginia. In this novel, as in many of her previous ones, she demonstrates a great love and respect for the beauty, way of life and people of the Appalachians.

That is precisely why she writes with such poignancy and poetry about the place, trusting that her social message fiction will be received as a call to action against climate change.

Winnipeg writer Sharon Chisvin is the author of The Girl Who Cannot Eat Peanut Butter.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 J10

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