Barbara Kingsolver's new novel takes place in southern Appalachia, Tennessee: redneck country. Sheep farmer's wife Dellarobia Turnbow finds a colony of monarch butterflies that have migrated from Mexico to the forest behind her house. Her discovery makes her a minor local celebrity, and then it attracts out-of-towners. Among these is Harvard-trained entomologist Ovid Byron (names are not this book's strong point). ''Six and a half feet tall,'' Dellarobia tells her friend Dovey, ''skinny as a rail, African American, but not totally. I mean, sort of on the lighter side of that. And the way he talks is unreal. Silky smooth.'' Dovey replies, and there will be readers who have mouthed along with her: ''That was Barack Obama.'' Reverse Ovid's initials and remember Obama has been nicknamed the Professor-in-Chief: is this the first novel ever published whose romantic lead is a fantasised serving president?
Besides setting Dellarobia to dream, Ovid brings with him a team of scientists to research the butterflies, and suddenly the town is full of people, the likes of whom she and her family have never met before. They have higher degrees and use words such as ''heinous'' to describe bad restaurants (the only kind in this neck of the woods), whereas someone like Dellarobia's father-in-law responds to any calamity with the words: ''I've seen worse.''
To the scientists, butterflies in the forest look like the harbinger of calamity, and the ignorance of people like Dellarobia, who think it is some kind of miracle, means they have to have anthropogenic climate change explained.
Short of apocalyptic science fiction, it's not easy to see how a novel can deal with global warming head on, so Flight Behaviour turns out to be as much about class as anything else. At first we see the rednecks through Dellarobia's sarcastic, impatient eyes. She is too smart for the people around her, and if she hadn't married straight out of school, she would have gone to college. Later, however, Dellarobia finds herself defending the same rednecks from the condescension she sees beneath the politeness of Ovid and his colleagues, and also, perhaps, ours.
''Ovid looked stupefied. 'What, you're saying is some kind of contest between the peasant class and the gentry?' Dellarobia returned his look: 'I definitely don't think I said that.'''
Nor is the book saying that, exactly, if contest is the central idea. But it is about the divide between those whose education and sense of empowerment lets them care about the bigger picture, and those whose horizons are narrowed by their limited opportunities and daily worries, those who think it is not for the likes of them to worry, and anyway, who says it's getting hotter? It's all in God's hands, regardless.
Kingsolver's empathy might have come across more strongly if it weren't a little reminiscent of a teacher telling us all to stop picking on the poor kid. And after all, it's not that hard to see that these farmers are victims too, while the novel almost entirely keeps clear of the planet's real enemies, the oil companies and such, with their bought scientists and hypnotised journalists (perhaps there's a novel in that). Kingsolver raises these issues once, when Ovid turns righteously angry on a ditsy TV reporter, though the scene is so obviously designed to make you punch the air (yeah!) that you may prefer to sit on your hand.
Kingsolver is a writer praised and sneered at for her good intentions, though she's got more going for her than that. There is craft, and she can shape a sentence as well as anyone. What annoys her critics, perhaps, is that she can't just be written off as a klutz. But, in the end, there's something just a little too facile about it all.