Kindred - Octavia E. Butler

There is a strange connection between Rufus and Dana. Whenever Rufus is in mortal danger he somehow calls Dana to him. This first time he was a young boy drowning in a river. Thanks to Dana’s quick thinking and some mouth-to-mouth she saved him. This “calling” happens throughout all of Rufus’ life.

The problem?

Dana lives in the 20th century and Rufus lives in the antebellum south.

Dana is a 26-year-old black woman married to a white man.

Rufus is the son of a plantation owner – a plantation complete with slaves.

When Dana is called to Rufus she is treated as a slave. In the 20th century Kevin is her husband. The one time they travel back together he is her “owner”.

Rufus is, admittedly, accident prone, clumsy and enjoys getting into fights so when Dana is called back, totally disrupting her own life, why does she keep saving him? She must, because through some quirk of fate, Rufus fathers her great-great grandmother. If he dies what becomes of her family and herself?

I’ve enjoyed other books employing the time travel theme in a wide variety of ways. Once I suspend belief it makes for interesting story telling. In Ms. Butler’s book it is a brilliant tool. It allows comparisons of attitudes about love, language, race relations, sex, violence and education between the two time periods. The book also demonstrates, in Dana and Kevin’s family’s reaction to their interracial relationship, that no matter how many years separate Dana’s two realities, some things have not changed enough.

Despite Dana’s 20th century education she is still naïve about many aspects of what slavery meant. As she is expressing her puzzlement about why slaves do not just leave and go north one of the plantation’s slaves explains the danger to her:

She lowered her voice to a whisper, “You need to look at some of the niggers they catch and bring back,” she said. “You need to see them – starving, ‘bout naked, whipped, dragged, bit by dogs … You need to see them.”
“I’d rather see the others.”
“What others?”
“The ones who make it. The ones living in freedom now.”
“If any do.”
“They do.”
“Some say they do. It’s like dying, though, and going to heaven. Nobody ever comes back to tell you about it.”

With this book Ms. Butler has taken a difficult topic and woven it into an interesting, highly readable and educational novel. She does not shy away from the horror and brutality that was slavery, but makes those things an integral part of the story. She does not offer excuses or explanations, simply treats it as part of everyday life for her characters. Her characters are complex and very real. If anything – the slave characters are written with more richness and somehow feel more real than Rufus and Dana. The book spans many genres including science fiction and historical fiction. I also discovered that this book has become mandatory freshman reading for some college courses in Women’s Studies and Black Literature and Culture. There are so many themes in this book that can be explored further which would make “Kindred” an excellent Book Club selection.