Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned across the years to save him. After this first summons, Dana is drawn back, again and again, to the plantation to protect Rufus and ensure that he will grow to manhood and father the daughter who will become Dana's ancestor. Yet each time Dana's sojourns become longer and more dangerous, until it is uncertain whether or not her life will end, long before it has even begun.
Rufus’ family recognize her magical role in his life, but still, she is black and therefore they do see her as a slave. They try to keep her with them, to protect him better and also to work for them. Dana can’t control her transitions between the two worlds, so she has no choice but to live as a slave when she is in 19th Century Maryland, as she certainly can’t go wandering around, without any papers or other proof that she is anything but a runaway slave. She doesn’t know how long she will be there on any given visit, so she has to make the best of it.
By the device of having Dana’s visits set years apart (although they seem only days or weeks apart in 1970’s time), we see how life develops on the plantation – the slave children she meets on early visits grow up, marry, have children, or are less lucky and are sold away from loved ones, or try to run away (usually unsuccessfully). Rufus develops from a boy who behaves reasonably decently towards black people (including Dana, of course, who tries to encourage his better behaviour) into a man who is as callous, selfish and brutal as his father was before him. There’s also a side plot involving Dana’s modern day husband, Kevin, who is white, and who has accidentally accompanied her to Maryland as he was holding on to her when she time-shifted. They get separated; he winds up staying there much longer than she does, and is changed by his experience of being a white man in that time, and one who is against slavery.
It’s a good story – I was always interested to see how things had changed each time she went back, and how she would cope, even though it was all pretty depressing. The ending also made sense, providing closure to the story. It’s a fairly quick read, and I think pretty much anyone would enjoy it.
I still agree with myself. And what better review for Valentine's Day than this time-travel novel in which a modern-day African-American woman is summoned by her slave-owning ancestor to rescue him at critical moments, and then must pimp her slave
The Book Report: Kinda spoilered that above, and there's the basic plot in a nutshell...time travel, ownership of humans, personal morality versus survival versus the endless mutability of human emotion. You know, the Big Questions.
My Review: Oh my heck. Modern African American, circa 1976, makes her way in the slave society of 1815, and all that that entails. It's not an easy, fluffy read, but it's amazing how Butler pulls no punches and still manages to keep the easy, smug path of good = noble, bad = horrible, from making her characters into masks capable of expressing only one emotion. I liked reading the book because it pulls no punches, and it left me breathless at frequent intervals with its complete willingness to engage all, each, every, facet of human love.
Octavia Butler, gone too soon, wrote this meditation on survival when she was abour thirty. What a feat that is. So young, and so sharply critical of denial and misdirection...so ready to face up to the underlying motivations and the foundational lies of each and every character's identity...what she must have been like as a friend! Her insights would be Buddha-like, if they were anything like the honest and unsparing insights she used in creating this book.
Beautiful, hard, fiery. Like a diamond, it will cut anything you can show it.
The main character in the novel, Dana, is a modern black woman in 1976 (the novel was published originally in 1979) who is "called" back to the early 1800s by a distant ancestor, a white southern plantation owner, in order to save his life. In the process of doing so, Dana is subject to the horrors of slavery in the antebellum South. Thus, in this first person narrative, the reader is also faced with those horrors. It is not an easy thing to face, but the most remarkable thing about this novel is its unflinching attention, which draws the reader into this world without making her feel obligated, or (remarkably) preached at. The extraordinary experiences offered up to the reader are quietly internalized; the message is taken in without conscious consideration.
It is only in the pauses, or after one has finished, that the reflection inspired by the novel begins. Whilst reading, I could not stop to think -- I felt, I absorbed, I wondered... I had to know what would happen to Dana, to her husband, to her world. But when I was done, I really started to think. I considered how different such an experience would be for me. I thought about the historical and linguistic patterns that Butler points out in the novel. I reflected on how far we have come, and how far we haven't. And therein is the pure intellectual beauty that is an Octavia Butler novel -- never once have I finished a work of hers without something to think seriously about. Butler is not the one you choose when you are looking for a little light reading, but she is absolutely the first place to go when one wants to take a new look at an old conflict, when one wants to consider culture in a different way, when one wants to think and be challenged.
I don't think there is any better recommendation for her work than that. Read it.
But this book - I adore it. It's my first book by Octavia E. Butler and I'm now officially a fan.
This book is visceral and raw and vulnerable and it
The thing that I love about this book is that it takes concepts like sexism, racism, slavery, sexuality and it makes them murky and difficult. It takes these 'old' concepts and makes them real.
I heard a lot of names I hadn't heard of before and so, for me, this was a really cool fictional introduction to some really important characters in US history.
If there's one thing I'm sure of, there aren't enough women of colour writing science fiction. But Octavia E. Butler's voice comes out loud and clear against the rest of the noise.
I love this book. (And get in contact with me if you want to know about specific triggers for this book - I'd be happy to give them, spoiler-free.)
Butler’s meticulous research into the period she describes draws a gripping and shattering portrait of the confluence of race, property, power, and gender. Black women in particular suffered from their positions on the bottom of everyone's hierarchy; their physical weakness and their emotional vulnerability as mothers made them relatively easy prey.
Dana is finally able to break free of Rufus after he has fathered her ancestor. But she can never break free of the time she spent as a slave. The trauma of living in abject terror, of being treated as an object, of being beaten and abused, and of seeing loved ones get beaten, sold, and even killed, will always be a part of her in ways she never anticipated.
In some respects the story is reminiscent of Harry Turtledove novels in which artifacts brought into the past from the future change the course of history; in other respects, I was reminded of Edward Jones’ “The Known World,” with its combined themes of slavery and mysticism. But Butler transcends both authors in this book, in my opinion, with her ability to bring home both the moral ambiguities of slavery, and the complexities of race and gender. Is killing ever justified? If so, when? Can a person who keeps slaves still be a "good" person? Can people be expected to overcome the Weltanschung of their time? How far should a woman go to protect her children? Her self-respect? Is fear an excuse for compliance? How much of our identities is determined by our race or ethnicity? How much should be?
The questions she raises about identity and limitations of the self stay with you long after you, regretfully, put the book down.
Time travel is one of the staples of Science Fiction - most of the major authors had tried their hand at it. Butler tackled the topic early in her career and put her own spin on it - not only she sends a black woman to the slave-owning South of the early 19th century, she also changes the rules of how time travel works. Dana did not end up there because of an experiment - she just got pulled into the past by something. And any time when her life is in danger, she goes back to 1976 just to be pulled back into the past. Time passes differently in the two eras with no real relation - days and minutes in 1976 seem to cover years in the past although the relationship is not exact.
Before long, Dana and her husband Kevin realize what is pulling her back (if not how) - a boy, and then a man, who is prone to incidents and who appears to be one of Dana's ancestors, Rufus, is always in danger and Dana is always there to save him. The boy is white (which causes some distress - she had no idea he was white even if she always had known his name) and his family owns slaves. If it was not tragic, these first meetings of the 1976 black woman and the boy who owns slaves would have been hilarious.
And so the story goes - Kevin gets stuck in the past by not being close enough to Dana once (although as he is white, his life is not as bad as it would have been... even if it is not easy either), Dana gets pulled at all kinds of weird situations and when she least expects, Rufus manages to grow up despite his attempts not to. And every time she goes back she needs to forget who she is and become someone else in order to survive.
The novel explores slavery in a way that I had not seen before. Butler does not even attempt to make Dana submissive - she may submit but it is because she needs to survive so she can go back to Kevin. It is Dana's story so she narrates the story - and that means that we only get what she sees and learns. Early in the novel Dana sees how slaves are made - by making them scared about their lives and about their families; by removing all but one thread from their lives - sell all children but one - so they have a reason to behave. Dana decides to live - despite being whipped, despite all that happens to her - so she finds a way to submit.
But even though she tells us often enough that this is a different world, she seems to still expect Rufus to change and do things the way 1976 men would behave and keep getting disappointed. On one hand, that's the everlasting hope but on the other, by the later years, she should know better - slavery did not survive for as long without the help of the slave-owners who really believed that are not doing anything wrong.
Butler's story is linear except for a few flashbacks where we see Dana and Kevin meeting and falling in love and the very first chapter. For some reason, it seems popular for books to pull a later chapter and start a novel with it. In some cases it works well - here I think it was a mistake. It told us that Dana survives long enough to lose a hand and that Kevin is there with her in the current timeline when that happens. Which takes a lot from the novel's dynamics - you know that no matter what happens, as long as we do not see this incident, she will be fine and Kevin won't be lost forever. On the other hand it allows a reader to concentrate on what is actually happening and not worry about Dana being shot (or worse). And yet - if anyone asks, I will recommend to leave this first chapter alone and read it just before the epilogue.
That's not the first Black depiction of slavery I had read but the contrast between the racism of the 70s (both families are really not that happy about the marriage) and the casual racism of the 1820s and 1830s is scary. Slavery may be gone but its influence is still with us (and even Dana's job is not slavery per se, you can draw a lot of parallels there as well). Add the rest of the characters - both slaves and slave owners and just as with Dana, the 19th century feels more like home and reality than 1976. One wonders if that was part of the intention - to show that we are not as far removed as one would have thought.
The novel is 40+ years old but for all intents and purposes it can be set today. Society may be better in masking some issues but not much had changed. And it can serve as a cautionary tale - people grow up learning their worldview and they rarely change - no matter how many times you save their life (for example).
Highly recommended - even if you do not like time travel and science fiction - under all of it is a historical novel which needs to be read. And if you ever believed Scarlet to be an independent woman, you really need to meet Dana.
And by conclusion I mean the end of the plot only; there are no easy conclusions to Butler's thematic meanderings. Kindred is about the complex inter-relations of history, about moral ambivalence, about perception, about race, history, memory, the past as present. I could go on. Dana, who in 1976 is married to a white man named Kevin, accidentally takes him back with her to the nineteenth century on one of her trips. They try to fit in, try to create lies to make their sudden appearance sensible to the locals. They watch kids playing a game where they sell each other off at an auction. The reader thinks about this, about the changes from then to now, about the way things maybe should have changed even more, and wonders what s/he would do in the past in such a situation. Dana's husband Kevin says:
"Look, I won't say I understand how you feel about this because maybe that's something I can't understand. But as you said, you know what's going to happen. It already has happened. We're in the middle of history. We surely can't change it. If anything goes wrong, we might have all we can do just to survive it."
Kevin, the white man, admits he can't possibly see America's past the way his black wife sees it. She can't see it the way he does. They're both living in the past and unable to change it. And yet they also both live in the present and could just as easily transpose this attitude about the past to 1976. Dana is several times tempted to let her white ancestor die for his injustices, but she knows she has to keep him alive so she can exist someday. This is a troubling lesson about privileging the Self over others, and explains a lot about the politics of slavery, about the relations between the slaves as they negotiate their own positions on the plantation, and about the relations between black and white. The most monstrous humans in Kindred show humanity in surprising ways, and the heroic characters are degraded more than once. Dana is mystified by the (then future) examples of Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. What possibly could explain the existence of such souls, able to act solely without thinking of the consequences to Self? Her novel is brilliant, and deserves its reputation. I'll be reading more of Butler's stuff down the road.
The interview was really fascinating, where Butler answered questions about how she worked to write Kindred and how she felt about the characters and how it turned out. The professor kind of threw Butler for a loop once, when she pulled an interpretation of the book out of left field, and Butler blinked, and slowly said she didn't write with that interpretation at all in mind, but that she was of the opinion that any interpretation the reader reaches is a valid one. I thought she handled the question particularly well.
In the lecture, Butler talked mostly about how she writes, her writing style, her relationship with her fans, and her upcoming book, Fledgling. The signing afterwards was very informal, but I didn’t try to stay and chat. Butler had lots of professors and awestruck students who were all trying to catch her attention. I got my book signed, said a polite thank you, and left happy.
Fledgling turned out to be the last book Butler wrote. She died unexpectedly in early 2006. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to meet her.
The book: Was good. A time-traveling story dealing with love, gender, race, racism, and responsibility. It was beautifully and rather painfully done. I never would have found it if it hadn’t been for the author visit, and I’m rather sad about that.
This book does not shy away from the malignant evils of slavery - beatings, selling off family members, and rape. But it get's even more uncomfortable in how on Dana's increasingly longer visits to the past, she grows to consider the plantation as home, and develop a fondness for Rufus. Dana's devotion to protecting Rufus is unsettling considering that Alice, a freed black woman who is reenslaved by Rufus over the course of the novel, is also her ancestor, and Dana never shows the same level of concern for protecting her. It's something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome, or more accurate the way in which its possible for one to look past the most grievous faults of family members and friends.
Dana is married to a white man named Kevin, and one occasion she brings him back in time with him, stranding him there for several years when she bops back to the future. Although Kevin is a progressive white man, he is still not capable of understanding the power dynamics that privilege him in the past over Dana. Nevertheless, Dana's knowledge of the future and seemingly magical power to appear and disappear over time gives her something of a an advantage over Rufus in their ongoing relationship.
This is a powerful and well-constructed novel that feels very contemporary despite being over forty years old. Much like reading Ursula Leguin, I had to remind myself that Octavia E. Butler actually inspired and informed many of the conventions of later time-travel fiction.
While I am quite used to stories of time travel, the slave narrative is new to me. This book was loaned to me by my African American co-worker when she found out I liked science fiction. I would imagine this book reads more like a slave narrative than science fiction, as the time travel is just a device to place the protagonist in this setting. Her experiences are heartbreaking, and remind us that it wasn't too terribly long ago that people of African decent were treated as less than human.
Times have really
I didn't find it very realistic that Rufus would treat Dana so much differently than his slaves, though his treatment of her was far from being good. Dana got a true taste of what slave life was like and I felt so bad for her as I read this book.
Dana, a twenty-something black woman living in the 1970s, finds herself pulled back into time.
The set up of this book really made the reality of slavery hit home for me. Dana is just as disturbed by what she’s seeing as the reader is, which makes it particularly powerful. She begins the book looking down on the slaves in some ways, because she thinks they just need to stand up for themselves. Soon she realizes how hopeless their situations can be. Running away will get you beaten when you’re caught. Resisting the master will just make your life harder and may encourage him to sell your family members. It’s a tragic cycle and it begins to break her spirit as well.
I think it’s fascinating that Butler chose to have Dana marry a white man in the 1970s. The beautiful dynamic of their relationship is strained in that decade, but once they are thrust into the 19th century they must find a whole new balance. Her husband, Kevin, is kind and devoted, but their situation is incredibly stressful.
The white son of the plantation owner, Rufus, is the reason Dana is continually drawn back in time. He is her distant relative and she first meets him when he’s a little boy. Watching his transformation from innocence to bitter maturity is, by far, the most powerful and painful part of the book. Like Dana, we have such hope for him, but at the same time, it’s easy to see how he is just a product of his environment.
This is my first book by Butler and while I enjoyed it, I’ve heard some of her others are a bit stranger. I may hold off before reading more from her, but I would definitely recommend this one.
Dana's story starts at the end. Readers know from the beginning that Dana is back in her own time, has been reunited with her husband, and has experienced a trauma that will stay with her for the rest of her life. The awareness of something dreadful lurking in the background makes it a difficult book to put down. Butler uses Dana to explore the slave system. Between her trips to the past, Dana has time to reflect on her experience and use what she's learned to prepare for what she's likely to encounter on subsequent trips, weighing the possible consequences of each course of action open to her. She learns that there are no good choices. The slave system is an unredeemable evil, and its psychological bonds are sometimes stronger than the physical ones. Highly recommended.