Criticism is no problem for author and Kentucky native Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver will sign her new book, Flight Behavior, at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Monday.
Barbara Kingsolver will sign her new book, Flight Behavior, at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Monday.

Many Kentuckians will love Barbara Kinsgsolver's climate-change book Flight Behavior (Harper, $28.99), even if some reviewers are having a snit attack.

Kingsolver doesn't read reviews, she says. That is a good thing.

"This book has enemies," Kingsolver said during a phone interview. "They are well-financed companies and causes."

Book critics seem to have found some rough sledding in the story of Dellarobia Turnbow, a young Tennessee woman who finds millions of monarch butterflies on her family's property.

Hector Tobac in The Los Angeles Times wrote that Kingsolver "spends much of the 400-plus pages of this book wagging her finger at poor white people." Entertainment Weekly's Karen Valby gave the book a "B," writing that Kingsolver "sometimes undercuts her own grace as a storyteller by filling her characters' mouths with clunky polemics about, say, global warming or the class system."

The New York Times begged to differ, with Dominique Browning praising "the resplendence of her (Kingsolver's) prose."

Ron Charles' review in The Washington Post was mixed, giving Kingsolver credit for pulling off a smart novel about climate change.

Kingsolver — author of such acclaimed novels as 1998's The Poisonwood Bible, a Pulitzer Prize fiction finalist and recipient of such awards as the British Orange Prize for Fiction and the National Humanities Medal — doesn't let such let post-publication carping affect her writing.

Having grown up in Nicholas County, she knows the people in Dellarobia's neck of Tennessee hardscrabble country: grimly struggling, behind on payments, embarrassed that their kids are on free lunch at school, sealing the vows of marriage with the pouring of a house's concrete foundation.

The kerfuffle surrounding Kingsolver's book is unlikely to affect the crowd that the author, who grew up in Kentucky, will draw during her appearance Monday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington. In 2007, Kingsolver packed the University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall for a speech on her best-selling book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Plainly, Kingsolver is a Kentucky favorite daughter, not just among intellectuals but among environmentalists and farmers. The pro-coal contingent might differ.

"I live in a rural place," Kingsolver, 57, said of her home in southwestern Virginia near the Kentucky line. "I live among farmers."

Global climate change is, she said, "harming rural conservative farmers."

Kingsolver blames much of the charged propaganda that circles through Appalachia on the coal companies, whom she said "just about control our information sources ... to support the continued pouring of carbon into the air."

Even so, she said, she does not write polemics. The gentle layering of relationships among characters in Flight Behavior supports that. Except for the character who sees millions of butterflies and observes "whatever the hell that is, it can't be a damn bit of good for logging," almost everyone has reasons for the way they behave.

The one exception might be a television reporter who manipulates the unsophisticated Dellarobia into embarrassing herself on camera. Reproached for her bad conduct, the reporter defends herself: "Now you stop right there, buddy. I have two little boys adopted from Thailand."

True, there is a conversation about ways to live greener, but you won't mistake Flight Behavior for a book by über- environmentalist Bill McKibben. It does not make a case; it tells the story of characters who lived through an extraordinary event and how it changed them.

"If I wanted to take out an ad or a billboard I would do that," Kingsolver said.

The book begins with Dellarobia as a young mother of two in a joyless marriage to Cub, who got her pregnant as a teenager. While traveling to a secret meeting with a paramour, Dellarobia sees millions of monarch butterflies swirling in the air above a hillside. When a science team comes to investigate the phenomenon, she learns that the congregation of butterflies near her home is a mistake, that they have inexplicably stopped well short of their usual winter home in Mexico.

Acting as an aide to a member of that research team, scientist Ovid Byron, Dellarobia finds that there are possibilities in her life that she and her children can explore independent of the sagging farm economy, where all that is left is to decide what to sell off or cut down next.

But the novel isn't simply about butterflies, global warming and self-discovery. It's also about the simple rituals of farm life such as tending sheep, lovingly recounted with the sight of the fluff in the air and the smell of lanolin, and the archly recounted frosty sparring between Dellarobia and her mother-in-law, Hester, whom she fears feeds her children a child-choking diet of cut-up hot dogs and grapes.

There are also joys in the book's descriptions of the townspeople, including Crystal, an over-lacquered unwed mother of two young hellions named Jazon and Mical whose body mass "was probably 35 percent makeup and hair products."

You might not be a Crystal, but you definitely have sat across from her at Dairy Queen. She is one of the characters who make Flight Behavior about more than just the despair surrounding a climate that's shifting around the heedless, harried people who don't think they play a part in the change.

"We live in a culture that really celebrates story," Kingsolver said. "That may be in part why we have great Kentucky writers."

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