ElCicco #CBR5 Review #17: Kindred by Octavia Butler

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Recently, The Atlantic published a piece called “21 Books Written By and About Women That Men Would Benefit From Reading”.  Kindred was  one of them and it really is an outstanding piece of fiction. I’m not sure exactly how to categorize it — historical, since it centers on the antebellum south and the slave experience; fantasy/sci-fi since it involves a modern day African American woman time traveling back to Maryland ca. 1810. Published in 1979, Kindred is still today, as it certainly must have been then, a provocative look at the slave experience and modern judgment about it. As I read, I was reminded of another novel that I recently reviewed, Rachel Sieffert’s Lore/The Dark Room. Both novels force the reader to reconsider whether s/he would have behaved so differently if placed in the same situation (Hitler’s Germany, in the case of Lore).

In June 1976, Dana — a 26-year-old African American woman — is moving into a new home with her new husband Kevin, a white man and, like Dana, a writer. She becomes dizzy and next thing she knows, she is on a river bank in 1810 Maryland where a young boy is drowning. She saves him and is transported back to modern California after a man with a rifle sets his sights on her. It turns out that the boy, Rufus Weylin, is a slave-owner’s son and a distant grandfather of Dana’s. He somehow calls her to him whenever his life is in danger, which happens frequently. Dana travels back in time and lives in Maryland for months on end at different points in Rufus’ life, although when she returns to California, only minutes or hours have passed. Less than a month of 1976 passes as Dana passes through time periods across several decades in slave-era Maryland.

On her trips to the past, Dana experiences the worst of slave life although her particular slave life is better than most. She begins to understand how a slave mentality is forged and the lengths to which one might go to survive, to keep one’s family together, to be free. After trying to run away and receiving a severe beating, Dana reflects:

Nothing in my education or knowledge of the future helped me to escape…. What had I done wrong? Why was I still slave to a man who had repaid me for saving his life by nearly killing me. Why had I taken yet another beating. And why … why was I so frightened now — frightened sick at the thought that sooner or later, I would have to run again? …

I tried to get away from my thoughts, but they still came.

See how easily slaves are made? they said.

Dana’s relationship with Rufus is complicated to say the least. As her great-great-grandfather, he must be kept alive at least long enough to ensure that Dana’s great grandmother is born to one of Rufus’ slaves. Rufus earns some compassion from Dana, but he also is a product of his time and is often cruel, selfish and deceitful. Her relationships with other slaves are also complicated. Some resent and mistrust her because she sounds so “white” and is clearly a favorite of Rufus’. Others see the benefit of her knowledge and influence on Rufus. Dana notes the slaves’ complicated relationship with Rufus. Strangely, they seemed to like him, hold him in contempt, and fear him all at the same time. This confused me because I felt just the same mixture of emotions for him myself. 

As Dana travels back and forth through time, she learns to pack a bag with essential items for her survival — including medicines and a knife — that she keeps tied to herself. With time, Dana grapples with the possibility that she might have to kill Rufus or herself to end the cycle. Ultimately, a piece of Dana remains behind and her modern day life is never quite the same. This made me wonder if Butler wasn’t in some way writing about the experience of being a writer — of immersing yourself in a story to the point that you are disconnected from reality and are changed in the process.

I found this book to be quite powerful and disturbing in its factual portrayal of slave life, particularly the punishments meted out to slaves. Kindred is also a very thoughtful reflection on slavery and enslavement and its impact on relationships in both the antebellum and modern periods.