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.
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