ElCicco #CBR5 Review #17: Kindred by Octavia Butler


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.

ElCicco #CBR 5 Review #14: Lore (The Dark Room) by Rachel Seiffert


Originally published as The Dark Room in 2001, Lore is being re-published now in support of a film due out this year. The novel is divided into three chapters, each dealing with one German and his/her experience of WWII and the aftermath of the Holocaust. The overriding themes deal with German guilt and the appropriate German response to its past.

Chapter one focuses on Helmut, a Berliner in his 20s, unable to enlist in the military because of a physical disability. Helmut is embarrassed, frustrated and jealous when his peers ship off to war and he is still home with his parents. He keeps detailed journals about the trains and passenger populations passing through the nearby station, noticing the while people keep coming into the city, the population still seems to be diminishing. To keep busy, Helmut starts working as a photographer’s assistant and finds he has a talent for the art, but the ends to which he employs this talent and his enthusiasm for it are disturbing. Helmut himself is a strange character. In addition to his physical impairment, he seems to have some social and emotional problems as well. The reader may be shocked by some of the things he does, but at the same time, the description of life in a bombed out, shell-shocked Berlin might elicit some pity, too. Helmut is a troubling character.

Chapter two is about Lore (Hannelore), a 12-year-old girl who becomes responsible for her younger siblings when her Nazi parents are arrested by the allies at the end of the war. Lore doesn’t understand exactly what has happened to her parents or why, but she knows that she has to hide evidence of her family’s connections to the Reich. As she takes her siblings on foot on the long journey to her grandmother’s house, the reader sees the poverty, hunger and displacement visited upon the Germans after the war. The reader cannot help but feel pity for Lore and her siblings. Their hunger and exhaustion are tragic and more than children should have to bear, but for Lore, there is also the gradual realization that the world she thought she  knew is very different from reality.

Chapter three is Micha’s story in Germany in 1997-1998. Micha is 30, living with his German-Turkish girlfriend and working as a teacher. As a result of a lesson related to the Holocaust, he begins to investigate his own family’s history during the war. Micha knew that his grandfather (Opa) had served in the Waffen-SS, but he, like the rest of the family, never bothered to ask questions about where he served, what he did, or what happened to him while a POW in Russia. As Micha investigates, he upsets his entire family and his girlfriend, who see no point in pursuing the question. Their feeling is that Opa was a good man who loved them, and learning the truth would make no difference; Opa is dead, so the truth cannot be known. But Micha’s research becomes an obsession and he is compelled to carry on. As he gets closer to the answers, however, he seems to hold back from learning the truth and struggles with his own motivations in pursuing it.

While the focus of the novel is on Germans’ experiences, Jews and the Holocaust are the unspoken backdrop. They are not characters, but the fact of their existence colors the reading of each chapter. You feel bad for feeling any sort of pity for the Germans, but you also question whether you would be any different than they were. And I think that is what the author wants. Be uncomfortable. Recognize the humanity of the enemy and deal with your feelings of revulsion and pity. It is a provocative novel and I couldn’t put it down.