When the air glowed golden

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"Flight Behavior," by Barbara Kingsolver. Harper, 433 pp. $28.99.

Good books grab you from the first page and hold you until the final cover is turned. Great books can be put down and walked away from a time or two, but they will always be picked up again. Great books stick with the reader, and refuse to let go.

Barbara Kingsolver writes great books. And her latest, "Flight Behavior," is as mesmerizing as her previous works.

Dellarobia Turbow did not expect her life to be lead in its particular direction. But, after getting pregnant at seventeen with her son, Preston, she married Burley Turnbow, Jr., known as "Cub" to his father's nickname, "Bear." Now, with Preston in kindergarten and with the toddler Cordelia in tow, her husband "still drove the same pick-up truck they'd dated in, now in its third engine overhaul, with so many miles on it you'd thinks surely he'd been somewhere."

On a rare hike up the hill, however, Dellarobia notices the forest ahead "blazed with its own internal flame." The sight makes her think immediately of Moses' burning bush experience.

The blaze, it turns out, belongs to the pigment of thousands of monarch butterfly wings, as the insects have been migrating to the Turnbow over the course of months.

Previously that year, Dellarobia learns, a flood washed away the town of Michoacan, in Mexico. Its inhabitants were forced to find other residence, and its characteristic butterflies were forced to search for another winter home.

Her discovery creates her into an unusual celebrity, much to the dismay of her mother-in-law, Hester. The sighting draws the attention of the local newspaper, the congregation at church, and even a mysterious scientist by the name of Ovid Byron, who shows up unexpectedly on the property one day.

"Flight Behavior" forces every character to see this natural miracle through the eyes of a child. For the reader, especially, there can be no more endearing scene than when young Preston asks his mother to take him to see the "King Billies," disregarding the looming rainclouds. Preston heard about the sighting from school, and he wanted to see for himself. He begins to point out each butterfly, crying "Five-four-three-two-one-blastoff!" when it rose in the air, though he soon realized "there were too many kings for each one to get his own announcement."

"Flight Behavior," offers a wondrous experiment for each reader, and begs the question: What miracle exists in our own backyard that we haven't, until this moment, bothered to notice?"

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