JUNE 28, 2018

Reading Behaviors 4

“She was looking particularly witchy today in her most ruined cowgirl boots and stained apron, with three enormous cauldrons boiling on her old monster stove. Witchy with a country-western motif.” – Kingsolver, Flight Behavior


The borrowing from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is really quite amazing in this book. By calling her mother in law Hester, we were given a little nod in this direction right away, called after, of course, Hester Prynne, Prynne itself carrying some meaning for Hawthorne in his own book.

Hawthorne had settled into Salem Massachusetts after living in Concord Mass in the Old Manse, a house built for him by none other than Emerson’s father. Hawthorne spends an enormous among of energy in trying to capture for us the patriarchal culture of Salem in his introductory notes to Letter, going as far as to say that he could not conceive of a more male oppressive caste than what he was finding there at the time.

As we read Flight Bahavior, at any time that we might be thinking that this is a sort of tightly packed socially critical novel, full of symbols and religious allusions, really, think again; take a look at the allegorical Letter again and we can begin to see that Kingsolver actually does us the great great service of providing us all kinds of little narrative tidbits to actually keep this 400 page book quite readable, including many references to modern culture (she describes the Judd family, for example), and offers us a narrative voice that very often provides of us humorous relief, such as the line above “Witchy with a country-western motif.” This all done for the sake of readability.

I have virtually no doubts that Kingsolver could crucify the Cub and Dellarobia family if she chose; in fact, as it is set up against the beauty of the butterflies to come, their magestic visage and their unfortunate situation of having to fly north as a new flight behavior, this could become a true screed. Heck, you could turn this thing into a book of essays and just go after folks for their attitudes.

That Kingsolver uses Pastor Ogle as a take on Dimsdale, for another example, gives us a little bit of playfulness, a sort of shot over the bow of the folks that are being skewered down there in Tennessee. We know that the author is thinking that this makes her personally mad, but to lay it all at the doorstep of a farming family who may or may not decide to lumber for money, well, this is a culture problem too, they are just wrapped up inside it and misguided.

The scene that plays out as the congregation is a loose little narrative without much to give it substance or stability. Each family member goes off into their own little niche of the program, and each sort of seeks out their own ‘home’ in church. This is purposeful. All of it, I believe, is purposeful in how it is showing that, as opposed to the true miracle of the butterflies up on that mountain, traditional religion has lost its vitality, literally. Any religion that doesn’t stop to smell the roses just isn’t really very real to put it bluntly; and of course that is the essential problem with sustainability and religion today: religion exists still but for what purpose if it can’t get its followers to dig in and love their land, their earth…their creation! Either traditional religion needs to redouble its mission or it is already lost.

We presume that what is to come is a positioning of nature as potential religion, a kind of reversal of Scarlet Letter, because the call there was a need for a loosening of the strict standards of belief, to allow for a woman in crisis. Now a woman in crises, well she might be painted as famous, a kind of oddity to be believed or looked at as a spectacle.