Dellarobia is a woman in small town hillbilly USA, pregnant at seventeen, now ten years a wife and mother who is bored and disappointed in her life, heavy with the burden of being judged and found wanting. Her husband Cub matches his name; I can hear his slow drawl in my head. He’s gentle, a two-hundred pound child and dumb as a cow and Dellarobia has the smarts but not the provocation to take her beyond small town life. “Her anger collapsed into a familiar bottomless sorrow,” is a good description of her state.
The book opens with Dellarobia walking up into the hills to a tryst, but what she finds instead is a small movement, a fleck of orange wobbling, a butterfly on the wing. It changes everything, as we all know a butterfly beating its wings can do.
The forest beyond is coated with orange monarch butterflies, around 15 million of them. This is a beautifully described scene: the fire and flurries of the orange wings covering every bough on every tree. The arrival of the butterflies is unprecedented and inexplicable. They should overwinter in Mexico and instead almost the entire population has arrived on Dellarobia’s in-law’s farm. The locals claim they are sent from God, because that’s the obvious answer. Enter entomologist Ovid Byron, who moves in to study the phenomenon and suggests that it is climate change, not God, confusing the the butterflies and bringing them, with all the associated problems, to a farm in Appalachia.
Cub’s dad, “Bear” (starting to get the picture of this place?) is about to clear fell the trees because he sure needs the money. Ovid hires Dellarobia as a lab assistant, and her horizons open up far beyond secondhand stores and the school run and life on the farm.
There are conflicts all through this story, none with an easy answer. Climate change, science and religion, marriage misunderstandings and the need for growth all get well aired. Change inevitably brings conflict and at a personal level, both global issues and family imbalances are equally difficult to understand and address.
I like Barabara Kingsolver and enjoyed Flight Behaviour; but for a great storyline and if you’re new to her I’d suggest The Poisonwood Bible or Unsheltered for starters.