Sunday, October 20, 2013
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.