Fiction Review - Kindred by Octavia Butler

I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.
  • Opening line of Kindred
I recently wrote about some of the controversy around an award being named after HP Lovecraft, given his creepy-even-for-its-time racist attitudes. There had been some suggestion of renaming the award for Octavia Butler. As I said there, I'm not certain of the wisdom of naming an award after anyone - everyone has some baggage. For example, Pulitzer was both a reformer and a sensationalist who pursued scandals; today he has a prestigious award named after him.

That said, I realized I'd never read an Octavia Butler story. That seemed something most definitely worth remedying. The story I chose to read was Kindred, a novel I read both as an audiobook and via Kindle, bouncing back and forth between the two formats. The narration provided by Kim Staunton is very well done and made for a very engaging listen.

The story is about a young African-American woman, Dana, living in 1976 California (which, at the time of its writing, was the modern day). She and her husband Kevin, who is several years her senior, are both writers. Kevin is a white man, a source of some tension with members of both of their families.

Dana finds herself traveling in time to early 19th century Maryland. The reason becomes apparent - she is being "summoned" unknowingly by her white ancestor, Rufus. Whenever his life is at risk she appears bodily. He is a very young child on her first visit to the past. While mere hours or days might pass for her in the present day, entire years pass for Rufus. This literary device is reminiscent of the time between trips to Narnia in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. Butler considered this work a fantasy in that she makes no attempt at explaining the mechanics time travel that takes place - it is a plot device to put a modern black woman (and at a later point, her white husband), into antebellum Maryland. When she returns, bare minutes have passed in the present, even though she might have been in the past for months.

For the most part Dana likes Rufus. He treats her with dignity as they get to know one another and he learns about her background. But he has a temper which often gets him into trouble and can cause him to perform acts of cruelty. Dana learns this to his horror as he takes a liking to her female ancestor, Alice and takes advantage of his position as a white slave owner. As some of Dana's trips last for months she is forced to pose as a slave and finds herself subjected to the degradation and abuse that slaves were subjected to. Rufus is for the most part a decent man. But only for the most part. And God help you if you are his property when he is angry or hurt.

Kindred makes for both an engaging and a difficult read. As the reader I wanted Rufus to move become better than his time. But Butler does a skillful job immersing the reader in Dana's viewpoint. And in so doing Butler puts the reader, whatever his or her race or gender, into the position of a modern-day black woman propelled back into the time of slavery. It's an excellent narrative device and one well worth employing in this topic matter. I experienced something similar several years ago when I participated in a reenactment of a Jump the Broom ceremony in Colonial Williamsburg. It took place after sunset, with the only light by fire, and commemorating the marriage of two black slaves until death, or distance, parted them. After spending about an hour within the slave's culture, the visit of the master was extremely powerful. He was there to congratulate the couple and not threatening at all. Except he was at the same time incredibly threatening. You felt the powerful gulf between you and him. He owned you. Yes, he was being kind, but he could do anything he wanted to you or with you and you had no rights at all. Butler achieved a similar effect with Kindred. You are Dana, you are living among the slaves, and you know just what could be done to you - and you experience it being done to you.

It's difficult for me to separate my own views on slavery in the United States from this review so it's probably best for me to state it. It's a horribly ugly part of our history as a nation and neither denying it nor apologizing for it will change what happened. I hear arguments how "in the long run" slave descendants might be better off because their ancestors were taken from Africa. I don't buy that argument. It smacks of justification for a horrible act. Taking people from their homes to a brutal passage across the sea - one which survival was nowhere near guaranteed. To a life of slavery. Where one could be beaten, raped, separated from one's loved ones at any time. With no rights. Obliged to obey the commands of another person, for no compensation. And a fate which your children and your children's children and all your descendants would inherit. It is a horrible stain on American history. We owe it to those millions who died as slaves to at the very least know about them, how they lived and how they died. And Octavia Butler succeeded in bringing those people to life, making them real people, not some abstraction.

It's worth noting that this isn't just some pseudo history text. It's an excellent work of fiction. The setting feels vivid and the characters are very well realized. You sense Kevin's concern for his wife, trapped back in time. You want to like Rufus, feel he's on the verge of becoming better than his time many, many times, only to feel frequently frustrated. You feel Dana's shame as she adapts to life as a slave.

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