Book Review: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler is my inspiration. The first black woman to write science fiction. I really like how she broke the mold of most black writers, but man, whenever I read her books, most of the time, I wind up scratching my head and going “Huh?” Although the writing was wonderful, most of her science fiction made no sense to me.

Then I read Kindred. And it terrified me.Kindred

This was the first book that really drew me in, despite the feelings of fear it brought up. On the cover, they spell “Kindred” rather oddly: “KiNdre d”. It brings to mind “Kin Dread”, which sums up this book perfectly. This isn’t so much science fiction, but a horror story, because in many ways, the monsters were real–at least, they existed along with slavery back then.

Dana is a black woman who is, inexplicably suddenly tugged back in time to save a white boy, Rufus from drowning. This boy, she soon learns, has the power to call her from 1976 to the early 1800s whenever he’s in danger of dying because he is actually Dana’s ancestor; he has a child through Alice, who’s a slave. But there is no love in this relationship. And that is what permeates this book with horror.

What do you do if you go back in time to meet your ancestors, but how they came about wasn’t through love, but through rape and abuse? And the only way you can insure your own survival was to send your ancestor back to her abuser? That is a really, really hard premise. And as Dana finds herself spending long stretches of time in the past, she grapples with the moral and ethical implications of trying to keep Rufus from becoming a brutal slave-owner and convincing Alice to go to him as a lover. She learns what it is like to be black during slave times, where she is antagonized by Rufus’s father, who sees her very presence as an intelligent, free woman as a threat, where she finds few friends among the slaves because they see her as a ‘house-nigger’ who even talks white. Dana goes through so much hardship, so much agony, both mentally and physically–as when she is whipped for teaching a slave’s son how to read.

Butler really did an excellent job with this book in that Dana’s experiences are painful to read, but you have to read on to see what happens to her. She even does a very interesting thing in that Dana’s husband, Kevin, is white, and at one point in the book, he is dragged into the past with her and becomes stranded there without her for several years. His struggle to maintain his own sense of self in regards to Dana was very interesting to read in that even he emerges with scars, though his aren’t as physical as Dana’s. It could have been torn their relationship apart, but I like how it emerges stronger despite it. I wondered what would’ve happened if Kevin was black instead of white. If he had gone back in time, he could have easily become a slave or killed. Being a black woman married to a white man myself, Kevin and Dana’s experiences added a layer of depth to the story for me.

But what impressed me the most about Kindred was that Butler manages to make Rufus a person to be pitied. Through Dana’s eyes, we see him grow from a bewildered child to a hardened young man who confuses control for love. Dana tries her best to keep him from becoming like his father, but when the father doesn’t spare the whip from even his own son, you can see Rufus’s unhappiness and self-hatred beginning to overwhelm him to the point where he’s passively trying to kill himself. There’s a scene when Dana is pulled to his side after he catches malaria from passing out drunk in the rain. As she nurses him back to health, she wonders aloud to herself why he keeps trying to kill himself, and Rufus unexpectedly answers “Most of the time, living just isn’t worth the trouble.” And there is your tragedy. What Kevin has with Dana, Rufus will never have with Alice, not in his lifetime. And he knows it.

The ending did seem a bit off to me at first. I couldn’t see how if Kevin was able to travel with Dana into the past, why Rufus couldn’t come with her into the future. Someone in my book group then mentioned the possibility that the past probably can’t go forward. I guess in thinking that over, it makes more sense–the past is set, it already happened. The future is fluid; anything can happen. It was still a very bizarre way for the story to end, though. I wondered what would’ve happened if Rufus was pulled into the 20th century, providing that the ending didn’t happen the way it did. Would he be locked in a mental institution? Would he live, finally free to live without the pain and torture of running a plantation? Would he find a way to make amends? Or would he try to force himself on Dana anyway, and then they would have a body on their hands and a whole lot of explaining to do? Maybe the ending is fine the way it is.

Reading this truly made me appreciate all the hard work my ancestors went through, from those who were slaves to my grandmother and all the hard work she did in getting her children and grandchildren to the level of comfort where they are now. Dana had it right when she said that she doesn’t have the strength to endure like her ancestors. I don’t think I would be able to survive if such a thing happened to me.

What a way to learn about your history! Still, I’m very glad to read this book, even if it is to appreciate what my relatives and ancestors went through to make me the person I am today. This book gets 4-1/2 time travels out of 5. And maybe I’ll rent Martin Lawrence’s Black Knight; if blacks do ever get to time travel, maybe they should find a safe place…like the Middle Ages. Then again, if Martin Lawrence is involved, maybe staying in your own time is a whole lot safer.