Stereotype Busting in Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Thursday, September 18, 2014

As someone who is engaged in social justice work and peacemaking through youth ministry, I am probably hyper-aware of how various groups are people are represented in media.  Overall, I find that news outlets, especially the less serious ones, tend to play on the stereotypes people have about the "other" (blacks, Hispanics, gays, the poor) when reporting their stories, or even in choosing which stories to cover.  Television comedies get easy laughs from portraying members of various groups in stereotypical ways, and social media memes like "The People of Wal-Mart" appeal to the lowest form of shaming disguised as "humor" to make their posts go viral.  Even as someone who strives to be anti-racist and anti-oppressive in my own language, I sometimes find myself using words and phrases that upon reflection are in fact just the opposite.

Therefore it was refreshing to read Barbara Kingsolver's novel Flight Behavior, set in Appalachia, and see her deftly highlight the very real issues of poverty and lack of education that have historically affected the area without blaming the people of Appalachia for them.  One of the most persistent stereotypes about people from areas of the US south and east of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers is that of "red neck" or "hillbilly".  Given the amount of rural poverty, lack of access to education and job training, and the Bible Belt culture of the southeast, it is easy to look at those living in poverty and assume that they must "want" to live that way, or that they are just too backward thinking to raise themselves out of circumstances that most of the rest of the country thinks are "trashy".  Those who are being the most generous consider them victims of ignorance and superstition, as though the social ills that result in the poverty and poor quality of education there are the result of some natural process, rather than of systems created and perpetuated by other humans.   Kingsolver, in Flight Behavior's main character Dellarobia,  has created a fully developed human person who will make the reader question their own assumptions about the people of the Appalachia region.

Dellarobia is a young mother of two small children, living with her husband in a small house on her in-laws' sheep farm.  She feels desperately trapped by the narrow edges of her life.  A stay-at-home mom, who once had dreams of going to college and leaving her small mountain town, Dellarobia is on her way to an assignation with another man when she stumbles upon the most amazing sight-the forest is covered in millions of monarch butterflies.  Despite the natural wonder of the scene, her father-in-law is determined to log the mountain to pay of his debts and keep his farm.  When scientists arrive in town to discover why the monarchs have strayed from their usual migration pattern, they and some of the more religious townspeople, who see the butterflies' arrival as a sign from God, become unlikely allies in trying to save them.

Through Dellarobia's eyes, we see the quiet strength of a people who are living so close to the edge of survival, and the power of religion to give people hope that the next life will be better.  In her mother-in-law, we see a woman who has grown hard and brittle, rigid in her insistence on conforming to tradition, that comes from a life filled with the constant struggle to put food on the table.  The reactions of the scientists to the lack of education and superstitious beliefs of some of the townspeople holds a mirror up to anyone who has helped perpetuate the negative hillbilly stereotype, though it is the media for whom Kingsolver reserves her scorn.  Dellarobia's naive experiences with the news reporter who comes to talk to her about the butterflies highlight starkly the exploitation of marginalized and vulnerable people in the search for readers and ratings.

And while it was the way Kingsolver's character reflected an inherent dignity and essential humanity that most spoke to me, at its core this is a book about the controversial issue of climate change. Calling the residents of this fictional mountain town climate change deniers is too strong, because climate change as a social problem is barely on their radar.  Those who have considered it only have the opinions of the local conservative radio host to go on, because the science teacher/basketball coach at the local high school spend most of the class sessions in pick-up games with the boys, and the students at the local community college are only interested in learning the bare minimum to get a job with a regular income.  Dellarobia becomes a bridge from that world to the scientists, and through her Kingsolver examines the way that faith, knowledge, and tradition intersect, and the difficulty of changing hearts and minds when what has always been done is what is always expected.

The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Sunday, September 07, 2014

In this day and age of instant communication, it's easy to forget that in times past it took people days or
weeks to share their thoughts and feelings with others.  And given the current propensity for over-sharing that has taken over our social media culture, we are used to knowing what everyone is thinking all the time (whether we want to or not).  But in the past, when people were expected to be more circumspect in their personal communication, they had to be creative about sharing their true feelings, especially with someone with whom they hoped to be romatically involved.

The Victorians developed a way to share their feelings of love, desire, and jealousy through the language of flowers.  When it would have been inappropriate to tell a woman that you desired her with words, you could send her a bouquet of red roses, and your meaning would be clear.  Eventually they developed a floral symbol for almost any emotion you can think of.  Some of those meanings have carried over to today, but many have been lost.  Vanessa Diffenbaugh uses this old-fashioned idea as the basis of her novel, The Language of Flowers.  The main character, Victoria, is an 18 year old foster child.  After having lived in group homes for most of her life, she is being emancipated.  Without any family or resources, she quickly finds herself living in a public park.  Victoria describes herself as misanthropic; she disdains personal connection, and wants only to spend her time cultivating the flowers that she loves.  She eventually finds a job working as a florist, and becomes known in her San Francisco neighborhood for having the knack for choosing the perfect flowers for any occasion.  She does this through her extensive knowledge of the language of flowers, which we discover over the course of the novel she learned from the one woman who ever showed her love or compassion as a child.  As she navigates her first year on her own, she is forced to confront the pain and fear that has kept her from having the kind of connections with the people in her life that most of us take for granted.

I loved this book.  I loved Victoria, not just in spite of her prickly nature but because of it.  I loved that there were facts about and descriptions of flowers on nearly every page.  I found myself completely sucked in to the world that Diffenbaugh created, to the point of losing all track of time in the real world.  To me, this is the mark of a truly great story, when you are living so firmly in the fictional world the author has created that it feels more real that the world you are actually sitting in.  After working for over 20 years in the public school system, I recognized students I have known over the years in Victoria.  And I recognized myself and other adults I know in some of the people who try to help her.  Most of the characters-her boss, her boyfriend, the woman who took her in as a child-all walk that fine line between accepting her for who she is and encouraging her to allow others into her lonely life.  Diffenbaugh offers up a hopeful story of love, loss, and forgiveness that completely drew me in.