Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, first published in 1979, is an incredible novel. Though it’s speculative fiction utilizing time travel, much of its focus is showing a glimpse into the past, and the way the author incorporated so much about society into such a well paced story is nothing short of masterful. It’s a book I find difficult to recommend because it’s filled with ugliness and brutality due to its forthright examination of slavery, and as such, may be too grim for some to endure. Yet I want to recommend it to everyone because it is a powerful book showing exactly what fiction can be.
Kindred tells the story of Dana, a black woman suddenly transported from 1976 to the antebellum South. She has no idea how she got from her living room to a riverbank and does not even realize that she’s in a completely different century from whence she came: all she knows is that a redheaded child is about to drown before her eyes if she doesn’t do something about it. Without hesitation, Dana jumps into the water, pulls the boy to shore, and saves his life using artificial respiration—but soon fears saving his life will cost her own when she turns around to find herself facing the boy’s father and his rifle.
Dana is convinced she is about to be killed but instead ends up back in her house as suddenly as she left. Her husband only saw her disappear for a couple of seconds and can barely believe her account of what happened to her even though she returned drenched and muddy. Dana can hardly believe it herself and dreads the thought of it happening again—and later that evening, it does.
Once again, Dana sees a child in danger: a lone child with red hair a few years older than the drowning boy, this time standing in front of burning draperies. She puts out the fire and prevents the house from going up in flames but is not sent home immediately after the threat is gone as she was before. Dana learns that this boy, named Rufus, is the child she pulled out of the river earlier, now a few years older, and that not only is she in a different state but also a different time: the year 1815. As she converses with him, she comes to realize that this boy, the son of a slave owner, is the exact same Rufus recorded as one of her ancestors in the family Bible that was passed down to her. Somehow, they are connected by more than blood and he seems to be able to pull her into his time whenever he’s in trouble—and does so throughout his lifetime, again and again, sometimes keeping Dana in the 1800s for a long time.
Before Kindred, my only experience with Octavia Butler’s work was her novel Parable of the Sower. Though thoughtful with a wonderful main character, I found it more an interesting book than a page turner, but Kindred is both gripping and reflective. It doesn’t spend a lot of time introducing Dana and her life in the present timeline (although it does fill in some details about her relationship with her husband Kevin and both their families’ displeasure with their interracial marriage later) but quickly plunges into her trips to the past. From the very beginning, I liked her and was also quite frustrated on her behalf as she kept getting pulled backwards in time to rescue to her accident-prone ancestor, often from his own folly. Dana is practical, compassionate, and far tougher than she gives herself credit for being, and the main reason I was glued to the book was to find out what happened to her.
Even though it is technically a book about time travel, I didn’t think that was the primary focus of Kindred. Both the basic idea of what’s happening to Dana and Rufus’ identity are revealed early, but how Rufus managed to pull her into his time or why precisely she went back instead of another is never explained. Dana definitely has an impact on the past as she saves Rufus several times and becomes an important figure in his life, but it’s not a book that’s about accidentally making major changes affecting the present or one that dwells too much on the butterfly effect (although Dana does have some concerns about what would happen to Rufus’ daughter Hagar and the rest of her line, including herself, if she were to fail to save him before he can father this child). Most of Kindred takes place in the past and shows Dana’s attempts to survive there, allowing readers to see events firsthand through her eyes as a black woman from the late 1900s transported to the antebellum South.
As such, it’s often a distressing story. When Dana returns to the present the first time after nearly being shot, she’s traumatized and her time in the past only gets worse from there as she witnesses firsthand—and is subject to—the inhumane treatment of slaves. She describes seeing someone beaten and how shockingly different it is from televised violence, as she can smell their sweat and hear their cries. She observes a chilling game played by slave children in which they pretend to sell each other to the highest bidder. It includes racial slurs, violence, and rape: it is unflinchingly honest when depicting the atrocities human beings are capable of committing.
Her protagonists’ experiences often made me feel uncomfortable, to say the least, not merely because she so openly broached such taboo topics, but because Butler showed me a frightening world where the scariest person was me. Butler’s writing feels as if she is holding a mirror up in front of the reader, revealing humanity at its best and at its worst and questioning your place within it. What we consider good and evil, right and wrong, is all called into question as Butler peers into our souls with her words.
Kindred is frightening because, despite the time travel and fictional characters, it’s rooted in history and mirrors society. I felt one line in particular that Dana uttered during a conversation with Kevin struck to the heart of this novel: “I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery” (pp. 101). It shows how the attitudes that permeate society reinforce racial inequality, and how it can be easy to be an observer of injustice, especially the further one is from being personally affected by it. Dana herself at times felt like an observer as a visitor from the past, but her white husband found it easier to dismiss the treatment of slaves as not as bad as he may have expected instead of seeing it as plenty bad enough.
Seeing Rufus at different points in time also shows a boy who could have grown up to be kind under different circumstances. As a child, he’s certainly absorbed what society has taught him and repeats what he’s learned from his parents, but Dana actually likes him and has hope that maybe, just maybe, she can be a positive influence and he won’t end up like his cruel father. Yet, he turns out to be largely terrible, though he and even his father still have moments when they are not completely heartless, making their more horrific moments all the more disquieting.
Kindred is the absorbing tale of a young woman forced to navigate the troubled waters of a hostile era she’s only experienced through books and television, and it’s also an in-depth examination of society, particularly racial inequality and its reinforcement. Given its exploration of slavery and related themes, much of it is quite harrowing, but it’s all the more powerful and memorable because of its candidness bringing the worst of humanity to light. Even though much of what is described is common knowledge, the way Octavia Butler presents it through Dana’s perspective is particularly impactful, and it’s tragic how relevant this story is in the year 2016.
My Rating: 10/10
Where I got my reading copy: I received it for Christmas a couple years ago (it was on my wish list).