Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Synchronicity and Extreme Climate Change

I rarely feel the need to finish one book before I review another, but since I'm always listening to one audiobook as I read another, I sometimes find uncanny connections.  Such was the case as I read Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel Flight Behavior as I was listening to Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker.  Kingsolver's novel, which has probably gotten more press than Walker's, is set in a rural area of Eastern Tennessee as millions of monarch butterflies have diverged from their usual migratory patterns, landing instead on the property of the protagonist Dellarobia Turnbow.

Frustrated by her life, twenty-eight with two children and a less-than-challenging marriage, the result of a high school pregnancy and shotgun wedding, Dellarobia discovers the miraculous sight, which appears, without her glasses, as if the trees are afire.  Because of family financial hardships, her father-in-law (Bear to her husband's Cub) plans to sell off the stand of timber to a logging company.  The members of the family's church see the butterflies as a miracle--and Dellarobia as the unlikely conduit of the miracle.  As the media gets wind of the story, people begin to come from everywhere to view the "King Billies," as Dellarobia's mother-in-law Hester calls them. The attention also draws Ovid Byron, a Harvard-educated professor specializing in the monarchs, to Feathertown to study the phenomenon.

Kingsolver manages to present the pull between science and religion without drawing fighting lines. She does weave in social commentary on the result of low educational standards.

Although I haven't researched to see, I would imagine that Age of Miracles might be considered Young Adult (YA) literature, since the narrator is a 12-year-old girl, in spite of a few so-called "adult" language or situations.  The story opens one morning when the top news story concerns what will eventually be known as "the slowing": for some inexplicable reason, the world has begun to turn more slowly, resulting in lengthening days.  At first the changes are slight, with minor consequences.  Schools wait until sunrise to announce school start times, for example. Eventually, though, as the change takes its toll on human life, major world leaders agree that everyone should return to "clock time," regardless of the light or darkness.

Eventually the change has more far-reaching effects. Like canaries in the mines, the birds are first to be affected.  Eventually, though, vegetation is harmed by abnormal light cycles, and sun exposure poses health risks.  Julia, the narrator, has to deal with this bizarre turn of events while navigating broken friendships, first love, parental marriage problems, and an aging grandfather.  When some people rebel and refuse to live on clock time, opting instead for "real time," the us-versus-them mentality sometimes becomes ugly.

The author never reveals a cause for the slowing, but the account of the far-reaching effects of small natural changes was handled brilliantly.  Walker also develops in her protagonist an engaging young girl capable of keeping the interest of much older readers.  Her realistic accounts of middle school dynamics ring true, accounting for as much of the plot interest as the slowing itself.

While the two books were otherwise quite different in style, plot, and theme, I enjoyed my vicarious foray into alternate worlds. I still look forward to a little literary escape in my next read.

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