Flight Behaviour

This is one of the books I took away to the beach to read during rain showers. I just loved Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, an account her family's attempt to eat locally for a year, and since then I have read whatever of her fiction I could get my hands on via the local library.

If Kingsolver has a particular genius, it is in establishing place. Every one of her settings rings so true, and all of her novels rely on place - their action is so dependent on the milieu it is set in. This particular setting drew me in right away - the Appalachians, hillbilly country. I live in the poorest, most rural state of Australia, where we suffer from all the Aussie hillbilly jokes - the two-headed inbred Tasmanian is the stuff of legend.  I wouldn't have to drive for more than half an hour to find myself in the exact southern hemisphere equivalent of Flight Behaviour's Feathertown, with its tiny struggling farms carved out of the forest, rural populations short-changed by the education system, and effectually outside the global economy, and the wave of prosperity that urban centres have enjoyed for the last sixty years.

My son has a part time job at a small sheep farm half an hour out of town. The farmer is the third generation to live and work this farm. He lives alone with his elderly mother, he has never left Tasmania, and he can't leave the farm for more than a day. He still farms using the methods and actual tools that his grandfather used. My son was helping to do some concreting a few weeks ago, and was wheeling the cement around in a wheelbarrow with an iron wheel. You know, the kind that was in use seventy five years ago, before rubber tyres were invented for wheelbarrows. You mostly see them now as lawn ornaments, with petunias growing in them. The farmer recently bought a cordless drill, because The Boy was telling him about this amazing technology. They painted the shearers' quarters with a paintbrush, because using a paint roller was a completely foreign idea. Reducing and reusing aren't in it. This farmer must live with a carbon footprint the size of a tennis shoe.

So this is the background to Flight Behaviour. A small rural town, already poor, farmers tipped over the edge by recession , and as the novel opens, absolutely inundated by the worst rains for decades, again eerily familiar in this Tasmanian winter and spring, the wettest for fifty years.

The wonderfully named Dellarobia is struggling to keep financially afloat with her husband on their family farm, and is terribly, restlessly unhappy. On her way to begin an affair, she is arrested by a magical, otherworldly vision that will change her life, and the life of the town. She, the farm and the town become the centre of media and scientific attention that introduces Dellarobia to a world wider than she ever dreamed of.

Knowing of Kingsolver's passion for the planet I was initially concerned that this would be a propaganda novel, a one issue manifesto. But there is a subtle interweaving of ideas going on here, not the least of which is the thread of respect for the traditional skills that thrifty rural populations have always needed to get by - cooking, sewing, mending, preserving. Again, this is something that amazed me when I moved to Tasmania. Hardware stores stock canning lids, soccer mums discuss the best way to make pumpkin soup and how to make sloe gin (these are not the private school soccer mums, but the club mums, who drive farm utes). The most popular talkback radio show is the Saturday morning vegie and fruit growing show and the one following which discusses chooks and small holdings. Many people here keep chooks and grow vegies and preserve fruit from their trees, not because they want organic produce, but so they can afford to eat well.

There is a moment I particularly liked in this novel where an earnest, but slightly pompous city environmentalist is trying to tell Dellarobia how to reduce her environmental impact. He suggests that she eat less meat. Her response is that the only meat they can afford is an occasional lamb from the farm. When he suggests taking her own containers to restaurants for leftovers, ditto buying coffee and takeaways, she laughs. She can't afford any of these things. His suggestion that she buy secondhand on Craigslist draws only a blank look. She doesn't own a computer. She should buy energy saving appliances to use less electricity. Again, she thinks this is hilarious. Electricity bills are not something you joke about though. You use as little as humanly possible, because it costs money. And then there is his last desperate effort. She should fly less.

OK, really, it is not the poor of the earth who are wrecking the planet now, is it? I think that might be the take home message here for me.


Anonymous said…
How funny. The last post I read before reading this one is http://permaculturenews.org/2013/10/16/elite-insurgency/ which basically says the same thing in essence. I guess though that I would be considered, well, maybe not elite but definitely one of those that can afford to have a large carbon footprint. The book sounds like a good one but since I have dozens of books and magazines I've downloaded and had no time to read and other books on my "I want to read" list I will have to add it to the end of the list for now. :( I adore reading. I miss having time to do so. :(
Jo said…
Hey Jessie, can't do everything. One day your children will all be able to read, and you'll be able to declare 'reading time', and won't that be fine! I'll have a look at that link. It is really is very hard to say 'no' to something that we can afford, because we have such a culture of 'deservification' - I deserve it, I worked for it..
I gave this book to my sister last Christmas...hoping I might get to borrow it!
Anonymous said…
Easier to blame the poor, the marginalised and those without a voice!

Have you read Poisonwood Bible by Kingsolver? It is on my list of top 5 favourite books.

Love the picture you create of the farm of your son's part-time job. I had never heard of sloe gin until I read Frugal Queen's blog. Didn't know we had sloe in Australia.
Tammy said…
Thanks for the review. I'm always on the look out for good new books. Some of my closest friends are from the region where the book is set. It will be interesting to get a peak at the mindset and the location.
Heather said…
Oh, now I cannot wait to read this book! I also loved Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Thank you so much for sharing this review. I'm at a point where I feel like I'm just walking blindly in the library, trying to find a book that will give me some fuel for my soul. This sounds like a great read!
Anonymous said…
I came across an image of a sign the other day saying "News: Rich people paying rich people to tell middleclass people to blame the poor people..."

How very fitting. As a member of the "poor people" class here in Tassie I can completely agree with you about what you have to do to make ends meet. Steve and I are incredibly lucky to have been given an amazing chance to live the life that we choose here but so many unemployed people in Tassie are doing it extremely tough and apparently, the welfare agencies are having to now help out working families because the cost of electricity, food, petrol etc. is crippling Tasmanians. I hate preachy environmentalists. It turns me biliously green. I believe in organic environmentalism. No preaching, just show people by your actions that the life you CAN have when you get down and dirty and live within the parameters of natures laws and work cleverly with what she throws at you is SO much more rewarding than living as part of a society that has effectively distanced itself from its means of survival. An outsider, when happening on humanity and our interactions with the earth, would think that we were suicidal! I am on a reading jag at the moment. I just finished Caitlin Moran's first book and launched into Mary Roach but it's not filling the place where my brain feels replete so I might head out and put Animal, vegetable, Miracle on hold at the library instead. Preachy environmentalists tend to also be lycra wearing militant bike riders. I wonder if they know that most of us think that they are wankers and they are doing absolutely NOTHING for their cause? In fact they are dragging environmentalism back into the dark ages with every soy latte that they quaff as they yell at the top of their lungs at some poor harried mum dragging her children along for having plastic bags to hold her shopping...sigh... It's boom or bust here in Tassie isn't it! ;)
Jo said…
hey Lucinda, I ordered The Poisonwood Bible at the library, it came in, but I didn't get there in the required window to pick it up. I'll have to try again!
Tammy, coming from a very similar area, this novel really resonated.
Heather, I have very bad luck pulling books off shelves at the library. Love a good recommendation! and I really enjoyed her other novels as well, so dig in!
Fran, maybe the lycra-clad environmentalists are donating the price of each soy latte to the City Mission? You never know! One of the moments of Flight Behaviour that has stayed with me was when Dellarobia was eyeing the young graduate students' hiking boots, and mentally pricing them at more than her husband's off-farm weekly pay check.
Jo said…
Oh, and Sarah, definitely encourage your sister to do some regifting!
CJ said…
I read this book recently and loved it, and I've really enjoyed reading your review of it. Your comments about the rural poor near your home are really interesting. As you say, the conversation Dellarobia has with the environmentalist speaks volumes. I have Animal Vegetable Miracle on the shelf now, I'll be reading that soon. CJ xx

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