Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

Sometimes there are those books that just stay with you long after you have read them. They were so riveting that they haunt you still. Even though I just finished Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred, I still find myself thinking about it in depth. It is just that kind of book.

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred tells the story of Dana Franklin, a young African-American woman who is just moving into a new home with her husband Kevin when she is suddenly transported to a different time and place. She comes upon a scene of near tragedy; a child is drowning in the river while his hysterical mother cries for help on the bank. Acting quickly, Dana rescues the child from the river and revives him using artificial respiration. She returns home as quickly as she appears, but right before this, she learns that the child’s name is Rufus. It is only after her second journey that she realizes that he is her ancestor, and that he is able to call her to him through time and space in his hour of greatest need. But there is something else: Rufus is the name of a Maryland plantation owner who fathered a child with one of his slaves, and the daughter of that union is a direct ancestor of Dana’s. “Was that why I was here?” Dana wonders. “Not only to insure the survival of one accident-prone small boy, but to insure my family’s survival, my own birth.”

It becomes apparent that this is the case, as Dana meets her ancestress, Alice, and as she appears in Rufus’s and Alice’s lives as they grow. Dana’s husband, Kevin, also travels with her during her third journey, and they both must try the best they can to pretend to fit into the societal roles that their skin color has set for them: that of master and slave. While Dana is all too aware of the horrors that came with life as a slave, Kevin, as a white man who may have only learned about the basics of slavery as an American institution in school, is not. His time with Dana on the plantation allows him to see how brutal such a system was, even if the owner was considered to be a “fair” owner.

 

A slave auction. Many times entire families were separated and never saw each other again.

Yet it is Dana’s own internal struggle which makes it even more tragic. Her ancestress, Alice, once born free, is now a slave on the plantation, and she has caught Rufus’s eye. She has been resistant to his advances, but because Rufus is her owner, she has no choice but to submit to him. Rufus uses Dana as a go-between, which puts Dana in a terrible position. Dana does not want to see Alice suffer in such a way, yet at the same time, if Dana wants to ensure her own existence, she must advise Alice to submit to Rufus. Just as Alice’s fate is bound by Rufus’s whims, so is Dana’s eventual existence bound to fate, and sadly, she must act to ensure that things in the past go as they should so that she is able to exist in the present. “Once–God knows how long ago–I had worried that I was keeping too much of a distance between myself and this alien time. Now, there was no distance at all. When had I stopped acting? Why had I stopped?” Dana wonders. And somehow, Dana must end it, or be doomed to forever travel between both times at Rufus’s whim forever.

As someone who had ancestors who owned slaves in the antebellum South, I found the book to be both informative and heartbreaking. We are all acquainted with the general meaning of slavery: that a slave’s fate is not his or her own, but is decided at the hands of his or her master. The slave had no power to make his or her own decisions, and did not even have the power to say no; he or she had to submit to the master’s whim whether or not he or she wished to. And there was no way out of that way of life unless a slave successfully escaped–and life on the run was quite difficult–or unless the master decided to free the slave. But not everyone is educated about the grittier details of it, or of how another human being’s free will was considered to be nothing because that person was considered to be less than human.

Butler’s use of first-person narrative to tell Dana’s story more realistic, as though it is Dana herself who has penned the words. In a way, Butler softens the blow of the reality of slavery because it is Dana who experienced and witnessed it. It is Dana, a modern woman who has traveled to the past and back again, who can tell us about her journey, and how the past still affects us in the present, whether we wish it to or not. Yet she exposes us to the terrible cruelty that one man can inflict upon another, and she reminds us of what great lengths human beings will go to just to survive or just to taste freedom for one brief moment.

A slave woman working in the fields. Working as a house slave was often considered better than working as a field slave.

It is sad, yet at the same time it is uplifting, as Dana often wonders how those before her survived in such circumstances. She believes that they were stronger people than she was, yet in the end, it is her own inner strength and desire to go home which drive her. In the end, she is just as strong as those before her. Not only does she survive, but she also tells her tale and at the same the tales of those who died long before her. And she can see how the past and present intertwine, and why it is vital to never forget how we came from where we were then to where we are now.

 

 

 

 


11 thoughts on “Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler”

  1. A few years ago, a friend recommended one of Octavia Butler’s other books to me, Fledgling. I loved it and went on an Octavia Butler readathon, eventually getting to Kindred, which resounded in my mind for some time after I read it. I highly recommend all of her books – she was a phenomenal writer. Some were a bit harder to get into than others, but if you haven’t read her, definitely give her a chance.

  2. I read this book years ago, and YES, it sticks with you. Octavia Butler was a wonderful, affecting writer. I had read her “Lilith’s Brood” series, even though I’m not much of a science fiction fan. I picked “Kindred” up because I liked her style, and was quietly devastated by it. Her stories are just so human.

  3. I haven’t read this book but I’ll definitely be looking for it. I tried a book by Octavia Butler years ago (Wild Seed, I think? Or maybe one of the Sower books..?) and it just had a very odd beginning that I couldn’t hook myself in to. This sounds more assessable. Okay not sure if that’s the right word…

    Your article reminded me of a letter I saw on Futility Closet a few days ago that really stuck with me: http://www.futilitycloset.com/2012/02/02/to-my-old-master/

    1. I think it was a certain sense of loss. She tried to change the fates of her ancestors, and she couldn’t.  And then what she lost with her husband…and then what she had to do to convince Alice to submit to Rufus to ensure her own existence.  I don’t know…it really just struck me.

       

      I have been very honest that I have ancestors who were slave owners in antebellum Arkansas, and reading this I really think about some of the atrocities that may have been committed.  I think this has contributed to my strange funk during this week…I don’t know.  Part of me says that while I should acknowledge that my ancestors were slave owners and may have participated in the atrocities described in Kindred and leave it at that, but then the more curious part of me wonders if I have relatives I don’t even know about because of this.

      Yet at the same time I suppose as a White person it is good that I think about these things, because there seems to be such great thoughtlessness and lack of concern when it comes to this subject among White people who might not be so willing to explore this and ask these questions of themselves.

    1. It is very good.  I read it in 3 days.

      It is very easy on the eye, because there is just enough description, but Butler also builds suspense because you want to know what happens and why.  This woman is/was a helluva good writer.  Her narration is just…nice.  I dragged through the Twilight  series, and yet I devoured this book.  Maybe some of it has to do with my own interest in the subject, but it is a very good book.  I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the reality of what slavery was in the U.S.

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