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 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.
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.
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.