Monday, January 21, 2013

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

My Rating: 4.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.50 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.10 / 5.00

Dana is a black woman living in California in 1976. She is a writer and is married to her husband, Kevin, who is white. On her twenty-sixth birthday she suddenly becomes dizzy and collapses, only to awake in Maryland before the Civil War. She sees a white child drowning in a river as his mother screams on the riverbank. Without thinking, Dana dives in and saves the boy, dragging him to the shore and then using artificial respiration to restart his breathing. His mother is terrified by the black woman using ‘magic’ on her child and beats Dana until the boy’s father steps up and points a loaded rifle at Dana’s head. At this point, Dana feels faint again and is returned to 1976.

It soon becomes clear that the child was Rufus, the son of a plantation owner and one of Dana’s ancestors because he had a child with a freed slave called Alice. Shortly after this first incident, Dana is pulled back again to save Rufus from a life-threatening situation but stays for several hours rather than only a few minutes. It appears that time passes differently in the two timelines and so Dana begins to spend extended periods of time in an era where her skin color is the only thing that defines her as a person.

This book and author have been on my TBR pile since they were recommended during Kristen’s Women in SF&F 2012 event over at Fantasy Cafe. I was aware that the author was a person of color, which made me even more determined to include this title in my reading this year and I am glad that I made the effort. This was an interesting read, although I can only imagine how shocking it was to the American reading public when it was originally published.

This is one of the few books that I have read that really made me feel the massive differences between American and British history and societal norms. Yes, I grew up knowing about racism in the UK, and I was certainly aware that some people had a real issue with the influx of non-white people in the 1950s. However, the issue of slavery was not as prominent because the vast majority of the African slaves in the British Empire were not actually located in the UK, but in the colonies in the West Indies, for example. When these peoples became free they remained where they were and so did not have to integrate with their previous owners back in Britain. Also, slavery within the UK was made illegal much earlier than in the US and was extended to the whole of the Empire by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. All of this makes the British experience very different from that of the US, especially in the Confederate states where much of the action in this novel is based. Similarly, the UK did not suffer from the same racial tensions, segregation and discrimination that led to the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century in the US.

Although this novel uses time travel to allow us to experience slavery from a very personal perspective, there is never any attempt to explain why the link between Dana and her ancestor, Rufus, exists. Both parties are unable to explain why she travels through time and why she can carry objects with her, including her husband at one point. However, they quickly conclude that mortal danger is the trigger that opens the ‘portal’ with Rufus’ imminent death calling her to his aid and her fear sending her back to her own time. The time dilation that we see in the past was an interesting choice, allowing the author to follow Rufus’ whole life story over a relatively short period of Dana’s perception. This makes it far easier to accept her fears about what would happen if she were to ‘travel’ to his time whilst she were driving or crossing a road. It was also a massive relief to know that, at the end, she could get on with her life without fear of ever returning to slavery in Maryland.

However, as a modern reader, I did not feel the impact of the discrimination that was present in both time streams. Perhaps I am cynical, but I was not overly surprised by the attitudes of Dana’s guardians when she married a white man, as I assumed that an interracial marriage would have been very shocking in 1976. Equally, I was appalled by the treatment of slaves that we witness in antebellum Maryland, but not surprised. I have read and seen enough representations of slavery to know how terribly many of them suffered. In many ways, I was actually surprised that Dana was not punished more for her impudence and unacceptable behavior, as it would have been viewed by the whites of that period.

Dana herself is an appealing character. As Grace says at Books Without Any Pictures, she is remarkably easy to identify with. She is appalled by the level of hygiene and medicine that she encounters, and yet she finds a place for herself in this shockingly different world. Although we get the impression that she is rather soft, emotionally, and petite, she shows great strength of character and presence of mind. I particularly liked her relationship with her husband, who has his own sojourn in the past. They seem like a regular, everyday couple, with the usual issues and problems. They struggle to cope with her ‘travels’ and he finds it almost impossible to cope with the way that she is treated in the past. I also thought that his disorientation was well drawn when he finally returns to the modern day after many years in the nineteenth century. I appreciated that his instinctive response was anger and frustration, and that at no point did I ever feel as if we were shown an easier alternative if a grittier one would be more realistic.

I was impressed by the variety of attitudes that we saw amongst the slaves. Although there was a vague sense of disappointment about those who adopted an attitude closer to ‘Uncle Tom’ than Dana would like to see, she always found out why they had been broken and made to become subservient. We see physical punishment used as a casual way to keep them in place, but other, subtler, methods are also shown. The cook, who seems to be a confident and outspoken woman, has been cowed by having most of her children sold away from the plantation and we see families broken up on a regular basis at the whim of the owner. We see slaves quietly determined to better themselves, but the ever-present fear of punishment keeps even the strongest from acting rashly.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this novel was the insight it gave us into the thinking of Rufus. At first he seems like a lovely little boy, with his best friend, Alice, and you think that they might become leaders in the movement to allow interracial marriages. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand how these two can by Dana’s ancestors, as Rufus becomes a typical slave owner, with a sense of entitlement that is truly repellent. By the end of the book I was fervently hoping that Dana would actively chose not to save him from the next danger or actually kill him herself. His attitude to women is appalling, although could be partially explained by the twisted relationships he has with his hysterical mother and remotely critical father. Indeed the treatment of women to breed new slaves and to satisfy the needs of their owners is even more disgusting when you have to listen to a young man explain why a woman should just let him have sex with her rather than forcing him to rape her. Such thinking is no doubt an accurate depiction of how many men thought at the time, and still do in some cases, but it is not something that I enjoy reading.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore the slave experience, especially from a female point of view. It is only minimally a science fiction title, and the time travel is merely a device, but that does not reduce the impact of a modern, free woman being forced to accept the role of a slave. It was a grim, but very rewarding read.

I read this as part of a whole heap of challenges:


  1. I actually quite like time travelling stories and this sounds quite intriguing.
    Lynn :D

  2. It was certainly very well written and thought provoking, but i'm not sure if it still has the impact that it had when it was published. I would certainly recommend it though.

  3. Intriguing premise. It reminds me of The Freedom Maze, which also focuses on someone going back in time to slavery-days and encountering her ancestors. This sounds like a more adult book, though, and potentially much darker...

  4. I haven't read The Freedom Maze, but I might look it up for comparison.

    Kindred is certainly dark in it's portrayal of the hopelessness of many of the slaves, but I found the darkest aspect to be Rufus: I was like Dana in that I kept hoping that he would prove to be more enlightened and 'different' from the other whites, but his attitudes were horrific, especially towards Alice.


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