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Science and faith
on November 6, 2012
When I first heard the title to Barbara Kingsolver's seventh novel, I thought of airplanes. Such is the orientation of the 21st century. Well, prepare to step into the rural, economically depressed farming and sheepherding town of Feathertown, Tennessee, where the shepherds flock on Sundays to commune with Pastor Bobby Ogle, their beloved and kind preacher and spiritual leader. This is the kind of repressed, technologically challenged community who believes that climate change is determined by God, not explained by science, and that the past year's flooding was decreed by the heavens and can only be reversed by prayer.
In this story, the survival techniques of the Monarch butterfly, those bright orange, delicate but hardy creatures, and that of a diminutive, flame-haired young woman are inextricably intertwined and analogous. The Monarchs have had an atypical flight behavior this year. Floods and landslides led to felled trees everywhere in their usual roosting place in Mexico. Subsequently, they migrated to Feathertown to overwinter. Why Feathertown? That's the big question that one team of scientists comes to examine. However, they are challenged by the residents, who are skeptical of science-based answers to climate-based questions. In the meantime, residents of Feathertown need to fill their coffers.
Dellarobia Turnbow, 27, has her own kind of flight behaviors, spurred on by too much domestic confinement too soon, and now she is primed to flee, restive--flying from pillar to post, as her mother always said. Unlike the rest of the townspeople, she wasn't as inspired by religion.
"She was a...911 Christian: in the event of an emergency, call the Lord...Jesus was a more reliable backer, less likely to drink himself unconscious or get liver cancer. No wonder people chose Him as their number one friend. But if the chemistry wasn't there, what could you do?"
Married in a shotgun wedding ten years ago, she lost a preemie before having two more children. Her husband, Cub, is a large, docile and complacent man, controlled and essentially managed by his mirthless parents. Dellarobia knows that to live in this town is to be under a microscope; she was the untamed child once, and that wildness is rearing its head again, her dormancy coming to an end.
The first chapter, "The Measure of a Man," is the catalyst for both Dellarobia's evolution and the arc of the story. (If you want to experience it fresh and unspoiled, avoid reading the jacket blurb.) Kingsolver's time-honored talent for yoking the struggle and turmoil of man with the flux and beauty of nature is vividly drawn. She builds the final, dramatic scene of the chapter to a man/nature composition that is at once distilled and dynamic, serene and dramatic. Abundant, also, are Biblical allusions that reflect the community's ethos.
Kingsolver is an agent of social change. She established the Bellwether prize in literature in order to award writers who effect change for the good of humanity. She is also a scholar with postgrad degrees in biology and environmental science. You are going to encounter a stout measure of activism in her writing, covering such issues as the degradation of the planet and its natural resources and the contentious class system of society. If her political evocations have bothered you in the past, they are likely to bother you here, too.
Nevertheless, the author weaves in her social issues with finesse, for the most part, and her vivid portrait of Feathertown is sympathetic and informed. Initially, she seems to lampoon the pious, science-fearing populace, but she gradually tenders the reader to an understanding of the religious community. She slowly develops dialogue between urban, rural, and academic minds and concerns. The biblical allusions are also ripe and fitting, relevant to the inhabitants of Feathertown and the way they see the "miracle" of nature. Dellarobia represents a connection between both worlds.
This is the second book I have read that highlights the migratory patterns and survival modes of the Monarch butterfly, and braids in the journey of self-actualization and coming to terms with loss. SANCTUARY LINE, by Jane Urquhart, is also socially and environmentally conscious, and is an apt companion piece to this book.
The clash of family, science, religion, media, politics, and environment takes Dellarobia on a quest beyond the emotional and intellectual borders she has known all her life, on a journey of discovery and transformation. Like a butterfly out of the chrysalis, she must follow the path of her future.