Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Kindred ~ Octavia Butler

I finished Kindred a few weeks ago, so this post is a little late; forgive me if it's a rambling and a little disjointed.  I was really excited to read Kindred, because Octavia Butler is one of the best-known black female sci-fi writers and that is pretty awesome (of her, not of a genre that is so overwhelmingly white and male).  The premise is equally awesome (in a disturbing kind of way): a black woman living in 1970's California is suddenly and repeatedly transported across space and time to the Antebellum South.  I mean, how messed up and full of potential is that?!  I feel like this lead-up suggests that I'm about to say that I was disappointed, but that is so not the case.  Kindred was immensely satisfying and did not in any way disappoint.

As I said, the novel revolves around a relatively modern black woman, Dana, who is repeatedly transported to the South during slavery, where time and time again she saves a little white boy who grows into a big white man.  Dana quickly realizes that this little white boy is her own previously unknown ancestor and despite some pretty atrocious things that he does as he grows older, she must continue to save his life so that she herself can eventually be born... so that she can save his life... so that she can be born.  It's one of those fun time travel conundrums - is Dana capable of not acting? - but it's not really the focus of the novel, which is kind of awesome.  Kindred is only very loosely a sci-fi novel.  It has time travel, yes, but that is really only the medium through which these times periods can meet and the action of the novel can occur.
The action of the novel is interesting and engaging.  We are shown slavery through our own modern lens instead of being encouraged to see it in its context.  We also experience the dilemmas that Dana herself is grappling with, in her desire to protect herself and her ancestor, coupled with her increasing disgust as he grows from a sweet little boy who is friends with his family's slaves and similarly oppressed by his father, to a selfish, stubborn man who oppresses those that he once loved.  It is almost amusing, in a sad sort of way, to watch Dana try to mold him as a child into a non-racist Abolitionist, knowing how unlikely she is to succeed.  The novel is totally immersive and Dana is extremely relatable, but the real meat of the story comes from the possibilities it raises.

I often had to put down this novel to consider the enormity of its ideas.  Slavery was a terrible, terrible thing - but it's in the past.  Modern-day racism is also terrible, but in a form that is familiar, though in no way acceptable.  Dana has endured this modern racism all her life but to suddenly and unknowingly be plunged into a time when she is seen as the lowest of the low, as barely human, when her life is threatened for having dared to save the life of a white child, when a person could actually enslave his rescuer... that is a whole different thing, and to put the two next to each other is astonishing and moving and difficult to comprehend.  Slavery is brought closer to the modern day and becomes less remote and more real as a result.

Dana's husband, Kevin, a white man (for which she received a lot of flak), is also drawn in.  He grips Dana's arm while she is being transported at one point and comes along with her.  You'd think that being a white man would make this less hard for him, but to avoid suspicion, there is little that he can do to protect Dana, and ultimately sees her whipped and, as a result, transported back to the present day... leaving him behind.  For five years.  Yes, in many ways this is easier for him as a white man, but can you imagine the enormity of that?  Being left in a strange place for that long just because you were trying to protect your wife, without any place in the world...  It's messed up, but while Dana had a role in that world, Kevin has nothing, not a life or a place to live or his wife or a way to get back, because the unexplained time travel is only triggered by Dana, not by him.

So, yeah.  Kindred is fantastic, both in how it's written and in what is written.  It's engrossing and will make you think and I can't wait to read more by Butler.  Also, this was the 7th book I've read from my Classics Club list.  Only 43 left to go!



  1. Your lead up TOTALLY made it sound like Kindred was disappointing and I was getting sad. Way to trick me :)

    This makes me want to read Kindred again

  2. This was already on my wishlist, now I am super excited to read it.
    I was waiting for the big BUT.... in your introduction, I'm glad it never came!