I know Dellarobbia Turnbow. She is someone I grew up with and went to school with, someone whose life arc was changed forever by an unwanted teenage pregnancy. She is someone who grew up in an ultra-conservative society that is founded upon a rock-ribbed traditional understanding of the Bible. She is also whip-smart and has begun, at age twenty-seven, to question the understanding that underlies the closed society in which she finds herself.
Dellarobbia lives in the Appalachians, in the small town of Feathertown, Tennessee. She is a small woman with an outsized personality, flaming red hair, and a deep desire for something more meaningful in her life than her unchallenging duties as a wife and mother. We meet her as she is hiking up a mountain behind her home, heading for an assignation with a telephone lineman, someone she is hoping will bring a passion that is missing from her life. She is not wearing her glasses, because "men don't make passes at women who wear glasses."
The fact that she is not wearing glasses is critical, because, topping a rise, she looks out on a sea of orange. To the myopic Dellarobbia, it looks like a forest fire. It takes her breath away and changes her life forever. She feels that it is a sign to her. She gives up on the assignation and heads back down the mountain to her two young children and to the life which bores her.
Barbara Kingsolver was a scientist before she was a novelist and she is not shy about taking on the big issues of science and the environment in her writing. In this new book, she again visits her favorite themes of Nature and the burdens of cultural privilege and social injustice. Specifically, the focus of this book is climate change and its effect on one family and one community in one life-altering year, because that "sea of orange" that Dellarobbia saw was not a forest fire but millions of butterflies - migratory Monarch butterflies that should be settling down for their winter in the mountains of Mexico but, because of a changing climate, have been misdirected into an almost-certainly fatal winter in the mountains of Tennessee.
The coming of the butterflies creates fault-lines in the community and in the Turnbow family. Most see it as a sign from God, but what does the sign mean?
As news of their coming reaches the 24-hour news cycle, a noted entomologist and expert on the Monarchs comes to town and to the Turnbow farm to study them. His presence and his willingness to share his knowledge with Dellarobbia and with her small son, Preston, the budding scientist, begins to widen Dellarobbia's world and makes her realize that perhaps it is not too late for some of the dreams she had for her life when she was a teenager. Perhaps her marriage to the kind and easy-going but lumpish Cub Turnbow does not have to be the life sentence to dullness which she has seen it to be. As she learns new things about butterflies, she learns new things about herself as well and begins to find a new passion, different from that which drove her up the mountain in the first pages of the book but no less fierce, and perhaps more productive.
Empathy for her characters is a mark of Kingsolver's fiction and it is on full display here. She lovingly draws the intricacies of the characters of each Turnbow family member, sometimes sketching them with a minimum of words, but her dense, beautiful use of language gets the job done. We know these people.
Of all the characters, I found myself empathizing most with Hester, Dellarobbia's mother-in-law. Hester and Dellarobbia start at cross-purposes. Dellarobbia sees her as an adversary, and yet, by the end of the story, she begins to understand that she and Hester are more alike than different, that they have much in common and should be natural allies. As Dellarobbia increases her understanding of the older woman, Hester comes more into focus and we see the tragedies and sorrows of her life and how it, like Dellarobbia's, has not turned out as she would have wished.
Kingsolver's ability to take a big issue like global warming and make it personal is one of the things that I find most affecting and irresistible about her fiction. Her inspiration to put the silent and breathtakingly beautiful Monarch butterflies at the center of this issue seems to me to be a stroke of brilliance. It would take a hard heart indeed not to sympathize with the plight of these wonderful creatures and to wish to save them. One can only hope that this story might open some other minds and lives besides the fictional Dellarobbia's.