Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

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kindred.jpgAlthough there's a time travel plot device that's responsible for the experiences undergone by the protagonist Dana in Octavia E. Butler's classic 1979 novel Kindred, the book isn't really science fiction or fantasy. Instead, it's a compelling and powerful historical novel showcasing the African American perspective on slavery in the antebellum South during the early 19th century. 

Dana (who narrates) is an African American female writer in 1976 California, married to fellow struggling author Kevin (who's white), who, while moving into a new home, finds herself drawn back in time over 150 years to plantation-heavy Maryland.  Somehow, Dana figures out that the fate of her ancestors, and herself, are tied in with young Rufus Weylin, son of a slave-owning plantation owner.  Throughout the course of the book, Dana goes back and forth from her time to the past over (I'm guessing) a ten year period between 1815-1824, where she encounters Rufus, his morally unattractive family and their oppressed slaves.  (Dana herself is able to return to 1976 from her trips but the complexities of her time traveling make it possible to spend months and even years in the past only to return to her present a few seconds later than when she left.) Significantly, Dana takes her last trip to the past on July 4,1976.   

During her stay in the past, Dana, and the reader, see firsthand the brutal, demeaning and horrible treatment of blacks in the pre-Civil War era.  Slaves are bred like cattle and sold off, refused education, beaten, mutilated, lynched, raped, overworked, and generally looked upon as subhuman by their white owners.  The whites exhibit sadistic hatred for blacks and find every opportunity to manifest their twisted and sick attitudes toward their slaves, regardless of age or sex.  This isn't the rosy romantic "fun" picture (carefree slaves happily singing away while doing their chores) painted in Gone With The Wind or that Mel Gibson movie The Patriot. The average slave's experience, Butler tells us, was one filled with fear and danger, where the slightest act could result in pain and/or death.  The slaves themselves were demeaned and terrorized constantly.  Dana herself discovers this (much too close for comfort) in the course of her adventures. 

Dana's (non-romantic) attachment to young Rufus (who somehow is able to "summon" Dana from her own time) is the core relationship in Kindred.  Their relationship propels the book's events and provides motivation for Dana (and Kevin, who also makes a trip to the past) and the actions she takes.  In the process, she and Rufus are transformed (Rufus, who becomes more and more corrupt as the book unfolds, not so positively) from passive observers to proactive participants due to their experiences.  By the end of the book, Dana, like other Americans of African (and other ethnic) descent, has been profoundly touched (and scarred) by the brutalizing shadow of slavery.

Me, I was riverted to Butler's outstanding narrative.  Her use of historical background and believable characterzation and storytelling (based on scraps of dialogue alone, we tumble onto Rufus' true nature before Dana does) is well handled.  I felt compassion, anger and outrage while reading this book.  But the novel's coda as expressed in the epilogue brings home the point of this story, which I won't spoil by revealing it here.    

All I can add is read the book.  (Find it here.)  Kindred is not a "happy" work but it is a profound and ultimately moving saga that will stay with you long after reading.   

 

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This page contains a single entry by Ed published on February 25, 2010 3:24 PM.

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