The arrival of a new novel by Barbara Kingsolver is a happy event. Over the years, she has delighted readers and helped shape modern narrative fiction. “Animal Dreams” is still one of my very favorites and an early version of the multiple narrative technique. “Poisonwood Bible” told by five sisters was a particular accomplishment. For a number of years she focused on non-fiction in a desire to voice her environmental passions concerns and early in her career she wrote wonderful poetry and short stories, in both English and Spanish, as she is bi-cultural and bi-lingual. When “The Lacuna” published a couple of years ago, she returned to her Mexican roots to give us a quiet but powerful story of Frida, Diego and communism. A more sophisticated and subtle piece of writing that I loved.
Now Kingsolver has written a novel that speaks to ecology and life in Appalachia, where she lives with her family. In some way, this novel is an homage to the people of this rural landscape, warts and all, as well as a profound message about messing with the natural order of things.
The set-up is grand. Kingsolver takes a reality and extends it into parable. In the state of Michoacán, Mexico, destruction of a forest ecosystem left no home for the annual migration of Monarch butterflies. That’s truth. What she imagines is that a gigantic flock of these orange butterflies is thrown out of their flight behavior to a forest far from home, in Appalachia. And that forest has been designated for logging by a family facing harsh economic circumstances.
The heroine, Dellarobia Turnbow, has herself been thrown off course by an adolescent pregnancy and ill-fated marriage. She discovers the flaming orange trees, which at first she perceives to be a forest fire, and sets about to discover the meaning and perhaps alter the outcome. “Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road… 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.”
The church believes the phenomenon is a heavenly vision. Scientists descend to study the butterflies. Friends and neighbors are pitted on opposite sides of the logging debate. Winter will come soon and possibly destroy the butterflies at first frost. In the midst of these opposing forces, Dellarobia seeks her true north, and the fate of her children in the human ecosystem. “Her every possession was either unbreakable or broken.”
In a simple narrative with memorable characters, Kingsolver invites us to consider all the choices we make, for ourselves and for the globe. It's a grand read.