This winter, fiction revealed truth about climate change.
As a teacher, I relish the escape provided by pleasure reading before I return to the classroom for the next semester at Warren Wilson College, where I teach environmental education.
In December, without reading reviews or making a list, I visited my independent bookstore, Malaprop’s and purchased two books: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012) and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (2012). I’m a long-time Kingsolver fan and bought her book as a gift, with the goal of reading it before wrapping it. And the cover of Arcadia, with its teal VW bus and field of sunflowers, drew me into purchasing what I thought was my second random choice for recreational reading.
Both books, it turns out, integrated climate change into the plotline, weaving scientific truths about global warming into the lives of fictional characters. And just as compelling, both works of fiction featured spiritual community at the center of critical decisions about the future of the land and its inhabitants.
Of note, critics have bemoaned the lack of fiction centered on climate change, a paucity that seemed to mirror our public denial of this scientific reality. In a 2010 blog on openDemocracy, professor and author Andrew Dobson even outlined the components of a “climate-change novel” that include a grim future, characters who explore ethical choices around global warming, and (no surprise here) extreme weather events. He ended his piece with this challenge: “So there’s the recipe. Who’s going to write the book?”
As recently as Oct. 18, before the publication of Flight Behavior, Daniel Kramb wrote an article in The Guardian with this headline: “Climate change fiction melts away just when it’s needed.” In his estimation, possible contenders such as Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010) and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010) used climate change as a mere backdrop, not a central theme. But Kingsolver and Groff have met the challenge, creating possible grim realities, ethical choices, and compelling characters faced with the impacts of global warming in their very real, albeit fictional lives.
Kingsolver places sound scientific research about climate change on the front stage of Flight Behavior, a lyrical story set in rural Tennessee with the fiercely intelligent Dellarobia Turnbow as the main character. She encounters a vast sea of monarch butterflies that seem to have taken a wrong turn on their migratory path, a result of a miracle or a warming planet. Journalists, ecologists, and locals speculate about the misplaced monarchs, who have landed on property targeted for clear-cutting by Dellarobia’s father-in-law. In an impassioned but measured plea for the land, the local pastor invokes a Biblical mandate for creation care, proclaiming the Earth as a gift from God and humans as stewards of the land.
In Arcadia, climate change doesn’t enter the narrative until the conclusion of the story, a tale of an intentional community started in the late 1960s. The central character Bit Stone grew up on the commune in upstate New York and returned to the failed community with his own daughter to care for his ailing mother. Set in 2018, the dystopian conclusion is marked by climate change and a global pandemic, but the values of the original spiritual community set up a struggle between the desire for freedom and the creation of shared community.
Reading both books, I could imagine myself as an inhabitant of these worlds, in ways more personal than when I read a news report about global climate change. (And sadly, such reports often make me want to grab a juicy paperback to escape the bad news for a moment!) Fiction allows us to inhabit a reality relevant to our time and visualize our own reactions to the events on the page.
This winter in the mountains of Western North Carolina, my community experienced 70-degree sunny skies in December and 20-degree weather and flooding in January. In Flight Behavior, Kingsolver describes such an Appalachian landscape where “the world of sensible seasons had come undone.”
In the midst of such chaos, the central place of spiritual community in both books allows us to imagine acting on our collective connection to people and places. We need both values and action to adapt our communities and build our resilience to the life-altering impacts of climate change.
Maybe my escape reading illuminates a future reality, rather than a mere distraction from the present.
Mallory McDuff, Ph.D., teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She is the author of Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate and Natural Saints.
Photo: Man reading in the park, dragon_fang / Shutterstock.com