Science Fiction; Historical Fiction; African American Literature ♠♠♠♠♠
Author: Octavia Butler
This book was published in 1979, the first science fiction novel to be published by a black woman. It holds a rating of 4.14 on Goodreads.
Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother.
A perfect book – Kindred is a balanced blend of science fiction and historical fiction, providing an original and thoughtful framework through which to consider black American history.
I’ve read slave narratives, and seen period films dealing with slavery. They are gut-wrenching, difficult, pieces to get through. They elicit emotional and visceral reactions, exposing a dark reality that many of us are relieved is left in the past when the book ends or the credits roll. But how can we connect with these characters who are living in a completely different world than we are today? We can’t, not entirely. And it’s a problem that Butler solves with one simple plot device: time travel.
Dana and Kevin are characters we can relate to. She is a modern black woman and he a modern white man. Perhaps reading this book in the 1980s would have made their interracial relationship stand out more, but in returning to the book in 2016, it’s hardly jarring. In fact, it makes them seem even more modern; even easier to relate to. So when Dana finds herself to have inexplicably travelled across space and time from her California living room to the antebellum south, she is a perfect point of reference for the reader. The reader is forced to consider, along with Dana, what aspects of modern life one can has taken for granted, and how one would adjust to life as a slave in 1815.
More to Offer than Violence
The immediate concern for Dana, of course, is safety. What we know of slavery is its brutal and dehumanizing nature. Reading slave narratives often means having to read first hand accounts of violences and atrocities many of us prefer to believe no person can be capable of committing. But there it is, written outright, stirring up the most intense emotions. Kindred deals with this in moments, but consciously focuses more on Dana’s adjustments to her new role and how she reasons herself into submission when she has to. The story is more about the struggle of accepting certain terrible things, and learning to appreciate what remains in 1976 (or today). So when the violence happens, it is emotionally painful to read, but it doesn’t happen on every page, which seems like a wise decision on the author’s part. This way it doesn’t lose any of the more squeamish or ignorant readers, because the book has so much more to offer than the stark reality of violence. It’s not just a story of strength and survival of the body, but of the mind.
Race, Romance, and Desire
Dana and Kevin have already chosen each other despite the objections from friends and families who have not been able to understand why a black woman and a white man would fall in love. But they have. And if they think that’s tough in the 1970s, that they might make it through the treacheries of the antebellum south seems damn near impossible. When Kevin ends up on the plantation with Dana, she instantly fears what may become of him; how the ideology of the times may taint him. She never outwardly thinks he’ll become a bigot, or leave her – but her fears lie just below the surface. Meanwhile, Kevin simply can’t adjust. The master/slave role they have to take on to stay together is so unnatural to him that he can’t quite feel it, or play it. It’s both frustrating and beautiful to watch him, a white man, struggle to fully understand what he is witnessing. He remains an observer on the outside, simply unable to blend. But when he gets trapped in that time and place, stranded when Dana unexpectedly time travels home without him, he’ll have to learn to. Back home, Dana is determined to find her way back to him – whoever, or whatever, he may be by then.
Then there is Rufus – the white boy who keeps inadvertently calling to Dana, ripping her from the comforts of 1976 to his father’s plantation. He finds himself in love with a free black girl, Alice, and she and Rufus will someday become Dana’s great great grandparents. When Dana first meets Rufus and makes this connection, he is still just a young boy who can’t seem to stay out of life-threatening trouble. Each time she comes to him she must save his life, secretly insuring their family line. But each time she comes to him he is a little older, a little meaner, and a little more a plantation owner’s son. Soon, it becomes clear that his love for Alice, although “true”, is one of obsession and possessiveness. Dana watches it unfold, knowing it’s how it must be if her great grandmother will ever be born.
This book is a triumph in both Sci-fi and Black Lit. It’s touching, emotional, powerful; and yet it never pushes itself over the edge that is so readily available in slave narratives. I give it 5 spades ♠♠♠♠♠*.
*My rating is based on a five-spade system. The rating is decided based upon how well/uniquely the book: 1) develops story and plot; 2) develops characters; 3) accomplishes or deconstructs the conceits of its genre; 4) raises thought-provoking issues; 5) discusses important issues. This system has been developed according to my own definition of what makes a book "good." It is therefore subjective.