Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Incredibly powerful piece. Seriously. Octavia Butler has crafted an amazing novel which is nominally science fiction but at the same time is a historical drama as well as a slave narrative.
Written in 1976, the story follows an African American woman named Dana who has just celebrated her 27th birthday and has moved into a new house with her white husband Kevin. Then the weird stuff happens.
Dana finds herself getting light-headed and stumbling. When she stabilizes, she’s no longer in her house but out in a wooded area and in front of her is a 5-year-old boy named Rufas, who is drowning in the nearby river. Dana does what anyone with sense would do, saves the boy. Of course, for her troubles she is berated by the boy’s mother for nearly killing her son and then the boy’s father points a shot-gun at her… which is when Dana comes back to her own house and husband.
Quickly, she understands that when she leaves she’s not only traveling across the country, to Maryland, but also through time, to the early 19th century. And the boy, Rufas? Well he’s no one less than her great (several times) grandfather and it’s her job, like it or not, to keep him alive and safe so the bloodline can make it all the way down to her.
Seems pretty simple, huh? And there are quite a number of back and forth incidents along the way where Dana does just that. But there’s so much more going on here.
Butler, the first science fiction writer to be awarded the MacArthur “Genius” grant, and who is herself African-American, gives us, through Dana, a look at plantation life and race relations, constantly placing into sharp relief the similarities (and obvious differences) between the two time periods, separated by a scant 150 years. She never makes apologies for her characters and their hardships, in the case of the blacks, or their casual cruelties, in the case of the whites.
Even Dana’s relationship with her husband comes under scrutiny. As a white man, no matter his love for his wife and his general understanding and tolerance of the situation, he is not able to fully understand what Dana is going through. Even when he sees it first hand, Butler lets us know this isn’t something Kevin can contextualize. Dana herself has a hard time understanding what’s happening, especially when the plantation begins to feel more like home than her present day life. At the same time, back in 1820 or so, she can’t let go of who she is, although the time and circumstance do its best to reduce her to a non-entity, defined solely by skin color (and to a lesser extent, gender).
All of this is part of what makes Kindred such a powerful read. Butler’s skill is such that she is able to make us pity the slave owners, not because of who they are, but because of the parts of them we may see in ourselves. She lets us know that being a product of your time is a real thing but it doesn’t excuse actions you know are wrong or dehumanizing.