Experts, Sweet Briar make cameos in novel

| November 20, 2012

Sweet Briar research professor of biology Lincoln Brower captured this image of a “river” of monarchs flying to water on Llanos de los Tres Gobernadores, Cerro Pelon, Mexico, in January 2006.

Research professor of biology Lincoln Brower and Sweet Briar College make cameo appearances in best-selling author Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, “Flight Behavior.” As Kingsolver promotes the just-released book in interviews around the country, she mentions the help she received from Brower and his wife, Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink.

The book is already listed among Amazon’s top 100 picks for 2012 and on The New York Times Best Sellers list, yet there was a time the author wasn’t sure she could write it. Kingsolver, a trained scientist whose novels and essays often focus on justice, environmentalism and other social causes, needed to know that the premise of her fictional tale was plausible. Brower assured her that it was.

Brower is an expert on monarch butterflies, which make a remarkable journey every year from their summer breeding grounds in Canada and the United States to a small area in the mountains of central Mexico. There, the monarchs overwinter in conditions that are precisely suited to their survival. In Kingsolver’s novel, the butterflies somehow end up in a hollow in the southern Appalachians instead.

The lovely orange insects blanketing the trees appears to be an incredible miracle to many in a nearby Tennessee town, but scientists know it’s an ecological disaster in the making. And it’s caused by climate change.

Kingsolver told “Science Friday” correspondent Flora Lichtman in an interview on Nov. 9 that as a part of her research on monarchs she sought and gained Brower’s friendship because he “knows more about monarchs than anyone on the planet.”

Brower and Fink gave the author a tour of their lab at Sweet Briar, explained their research and reviewed an early draft of the manuscript.

She approached them cautiously, however, afraid they’d think the story idea was nonsense.

“I didn’t know if they [would] run me out of the lab on a rail. But they were delighted. They were so imaginative and they were so — well, they’re both fiction readers, which helps, so they understand what literature can do, that it’s symbolic and how you can sort of tell the truth in a fictional way,” Kingsolver said on “Science Friday,” which airs on National Public Radio.

“They were very enthusiastically helping me create this imaginary world, which gave me a lot of confidence in the final manuscript because they vetted it for me and they made sure that every degree of temperature was accurate and all the equipment used by the scientists in this novel were, you know, I haven’t positioned them upside down. You know, everything, every detail has to be right.

“So I really appreciate, not just Dr. Brower and Dr. Fink, but all of the scientists who have done a lot of work on monarchs — on which I relied to get my facts straight.”

In addition to including Brower and Fink in the book’s acknowledgements, Kingsolver also mentions Sweet Briar in the story when her fictional scientists reference the research of “Brower et al.” and visit monarch scientists at the College. The friendship that developed between the author and Brower and Fink had another nice outcome: Kingsolver will be the College’s 2012-2013 Waxter Forum speaker in March.

The public lecture is scheduled for March 21. Her visit is co-sponsored by the environmental studies, biology and creative writing departments and will open the 2013 Creative Writing Conference. Follow sbc.edu/news for details on these and other spring events.

Jennifer McManamay

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Category: Biology