On her way into the woods to meet the telephone guy for a first-time tryst, in such a rush of determination that she has forgotten her glasses, Dellarobia is literally stopped in her tracks by the sight of her family’s woods apparently aflame with a soundless, rippling fire. Forgoing the affair, she turns around and goes home to her family, only to have her husband tell her that his father is selling the land to loggers. When she suggests that he might want to have a look at the land first, he goes into the woods with her, where, glasses on, Dellarobia now sees that the noiseless flames were actually millions of Monarch butterflies, inexplicably preparing to winter in the Appalachian forests.
This discovery brings gawkers, journalists, and scientists to Dellarobia’s working-class Tennessee town, among them Dr. Ovid Byron, a climate change researcher. Despite her lack of post-high-school education, (her plans to attend college were thwarted when she became pregnant and consequently married at 17), Dellarobia becomes one of Ovid’s research assistants, working frantically to discover why the butterflies have roosted so far from home and whether they will leave before a deep frost renders them extinct.
The book is such a pleasure to read that one might almost breeze through all of its roughly 450 pages without stopping to admire how skillful is Barbara Kingsolver’s talent for taking a topical issue, such as climate change, and bringing it down to human proportions. Still more impressive is her ability to render her novel timeless by explaining human reactions to climate change in universal terms that will resonate with any reader no matter where he stands on the issue of global warming. While Dellarobia is rediscovering her own intelligence in Ovid’s lab, she also realizes that her impulsiveness and failure to think beyond the implications of the moment have saddled her with a life she finds stultifying, despite her love for her children and her respect for a husband who is not a match for her. The reader, along with Dellarobia, is forced to acknowledge that even when circumstances are not ideal, we still have the choice to face hard facts and make decisions that are best for the long term. And that when we make mistakes, we have the choice to own up to them.
The balance Kingsolver sustains between the global and the personal is also on display in her treatment of her characters, who come together from opposite sides of a bleak socioeconomic line. Ovid is pleased and surprised to find an intelligent and competent mind in Dellarobia, but naïvely considers her the exception to the rule in a class of people who have “chosen” to bury their heads in the sand. Dellarobia challenges him:
Ovid seemed the smallest bit amused. “I meant more recently than Herbert Hoover. Fifteen years ago people knew about global warming, at least in a general way, you know? In surveys, they would all answer, Yes, it exists, it’s a problem. Conservatives or liberals, exactly the same. Now there is a divide.”
“Well, yeah. People sort themselves out. LIke kids in a family, you know. They have to stake out their different territories. The teacher’s pet or the rascal.”
“You think so? It’s a territory divide, we have sorted ourselves as the calm, educated science believers and the scrappy, hotheaded climate deniers?”
Dellarobia definitely felt he was stacking one side of the deck with the sensible cards…
“I’d say the teams get picked, and then the beliefs get handed around.”
Even in Dellarobia’s challenging of Ovid, Kingsolver shows us the way her upbringing has influenced her. Dellarobia is outspoken only because she cannot help it. She is extremely uncomfortable arguing with a scientist. She (correctly) informs Ovid that the class divide goes both ways, and that if he’d run into her as a waitress he would not have included her in his conversation at all. At the same time, she thinks, “The moment for her to shut up would be right now.” When Ovid and one of his researchers discuss the entitlement prevalent amongst the students at their university, Dellarobia thinks of her son: “Somewhere along the way between mud pies and sex ed, most kids of her acquaintance lost all courage on their own behalf. Even Preston, inventive as he was, was so serious already about not breaking rules. What would become of him when he had to fight for a place in the world against kids who thought they owned it already?”
In other words, working- and lower-class populations get the message, Keep your head down, Don’t make trouble, Do your work; upper classes are told that they are the inheritors of the earth and must protect it from the ignorant masses. Anyone who’s ever heard a college student attempt to advance their argument against administration by announcing they pay a lot of money to go there has already seen this dynamic in action whether they recognized it or not. It’s the crystallization, in prose form, of truths like this that prove Kingsolver to be a keen observer and a beautiful writer, alongside her role as a fervent environmentalist.