Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Flight Behavior: A Book Review

So I think I'm in love.

I wrote a review a while back about Barbara Kingsolver's spectacular novel, The Poisonwood Bible, of a family of star-crossed missionaries in Africa. It blew me away, and, honestly, I was a little hesitant to read another of her books. How could it possibly be as good? But I finally gave one a shot.

Flight Behavior follows Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman desperate for a change in the hills of Southern Appalachia. One day, she climbs the mountain behind her house, determined to throw away the life she's been living - two children, a nice if uninteresting husband, a family she never really belonged to - but something stops her. In what verges on religious transcendence, she discovers a miracle. No, a phenomenon. No, a catastrophe. I don't want to give away anything, but what she discovers surpasses her understanding and the understanding of the scientific community.

In one breath, her life is overturned. Her church suddenly views her as blessed by God. Scientists venture into this small backwoods town to study the phenomenon. And well-meaning tourists disrupt the stagnant balance that had previously been Dellarobia's existence.

At first, I was a bit reluctant to relate to this character. Not because of how she was written but because of my own prejudices. Dellarobia is basically what I've always heard called "poor, white trash." She married before she graduated high school because she got pregnant. She stayed with her husband even though that meant a life of diapers, and cleaning, and putting up with the matriarch of this sheep-farmer family. She traded the young, brilliant, enthusiastic woman that she was in for a dollar-store, made-in-china, washed-out version of herself. As someone who grew up poor, it wasn't her poverty that turned me off. It was her absolute hopelessness. But that changes pretty quickly.

At first she sees the phenomenon that landed in her backyard as a sign from God. A sign of beauty and hope. She's not sure what to make of it, but she believes with a child-like certainty that it portends of good things to come. Then the scientists come.

The head scientist - a graceful, brilliant, foreign man - makes such an impression on this sheltered young mother that she falls almost instantly in love. Not exactly love for who he is, himself, but for what he stands for. Education. Knowledge. Opportunity. She quickly offers her land for his use and he sets up a portable trailer house and a makeshift laboratory. The more she learns, the clearer it becomes that this wonder in her backyard is a tragedy of catastrophic proportions.

Flight Behavior skillfully portrays the small dramas of this Appalachia town, complete with the exciting new opening of a thrift store the next town over. It shows the humanity of those who live paycheck to paycheck and the casual apathy that is almost required to survive in the cloistered, claustrophobic atmosphere of a dying small town. It presents, addresses, and demolishes prejudices and assumptions held on all sides. The intensely conservative distrust of science, outsiders, and anything new. The highly educated's arrogant assumptions regarding the inferiority, inability, and lack of self-determination with regards to the uneducated. It's strikes all the universal chords of family, ambition, privilege, respect, and that quintessentially human thirst for something .... more.

It made me question my own prejudices. It forced me to consider a new point of view. It compelled me to recognize the fact that I cannot know all of someone else's circumstances. That each person is valid and contributes to the humanity of us all. The main character grows immensely throughout the book and takes the reader along for the ride. It shows us that something can be both beautiful and heartbreaking. That a person can be both tragic and strong. Victim and oppressor. Ignorant and brilliant. That for what it's worth, each individual matters. And that in the face of overwhelming odds, it's worth fighting.

The writing itself is beautifully crafted, and I must admit, Barbara Kingsolver may give my all-time favorite author, Margaret Atwood, a run for her money when it comes to beauty and lyricism in writing. It looks like I've got a new favorite author, so now comes the hard part. Which of her other books should I read next?

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