As an American, it’s hard to settle on a single book to represent my own country. I’ve thought about picking a book focusing on Native American life (I just finished Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie and I want to read The Round House by Louise Erdrich) or a book that gives an outsider’s perspective on the United States. (The New York Times had a recent article on a book explaining American culture to Russians that sounded fascinating. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available in English!) I wasn’t originally intending to count Flight Behavior as my book for the United States. I was reading it solely because I love many of Barbara Kingsolver’s books and was excited to read her new one. But I’ve decided it would make an interseting representative of the United States because of its sensitive portrayal of certain cultural divides within the United States.
Flight Behavior is told from the perspective of Dellarobia Turnbow, a mother of two young children living in rural Tennessee. Although she is smart and curious, her education ended with high school, thanks to economic circumstances and a teenage pregnancy and marriage. As a result of a colony of monarch butterflies that has unexpectedly come to roost on the family farm, the Turnbows come into contact with a group of scientists who come to study the butterflies. Flight Behavior is an environmentalist novel, focusing on how climate change affect peoples’ lives. It also takes an interesting perspective on family relationships. What most caught my attention though, is the contrast of cultures between rural Appalachia and the visiting scientists.
My ability to assess Kingsolver’s portrayal of rural Appalachian culture is limited, but I can say from experience that she got the description of the scientists just about right. Reading Dellarobia’s reaction to the scientists, Flight Behavior let me see how my life might look from another perspective. The example that struck me the most was Dellarobia being startled to realize that the graduate students, who she thinks of as kids, are actually her own age. I was startled by her realization also because I also was thinking of the graduate students (and of myself) as younger than her. Somehow, it’s hard as a grad student to see yourself as a real adult, particularly relative to someone with two children, a mother-in-law, and a mortgage payment she can’t afford. I guess that not-a-real-adult feeling rubs off onto other people’s perceptions also.
The science graduate students (and even a post-doc!) don’t play a terribly central role in the story, with their advisor having the more important role (of course!), but they are there in the story. I must be forgetting something, but I can’t actually think of any other novel with science graduate students. Can anyone else come up with one?