Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred Kindred begins in 1976 with our narrator, Dana, celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her husband, Kevin. Suddenly Dana begins to feel dizzy and disappears from the room, finding herself kneeling by a river watching a young boy drowning in the water. She manages to rescue the boy before the scene in front of her vanishes and she is back in her own home, wet and muddy. After another similar experience, Dana becomes aware that she is somehow being drawn back in time to the early 1800s and that the boy she has saved is Rufus Weylin, one of her own ancestors.

Dana is transported back to the past again and again to find that on each occasion several years have gone by and Rufus is growing from a man to a boy. It seems that the purpose of Dana’s time travel is to rescue Rufus every time he finds himself in danger – but she quickly discovers that as a black woman in Maryland in 1815, her own life could also be at risk. To make things worse, Rufus is white and the son of a slave-owner. She’s not sure whether she can trust him, but she knows that she must continue to protect him if she wants to ensure her own future survival.

This is the first time I’ve read any of Octavia E. Butler’s work, though I’ve heard a lot about her and knowing that she was one of very few black female authors of science fiction made me even more interested in trying her books. I was particularly interested in reading Kindred, as it’s such a well-loved, highly regarded novel, and I’m pleased to have finally had an opportunity to read it because it was excellent.

At first, with her knowledge of the future and the freedom and independence she has there, Dana feels very different from the slaves she meets on the plantation. But the longer she spends in the past, the more she discovers “how easily people could be trained to accept slavery” and is horrified to find herself adapting to her new life and becoming increasingly reluctant to resist, knowing that it’s the only way to avoid punishment. On one of her journeys back in time, her husband, Kevin, is able to accompany her. This adds another angle to the story as Kevin is just as outraged by slavery as Dana is, but being both white and male he finds himself in an entirely different social position.

The relationship between Dana and Rufus is particularly interesting (as Dana herself muses, “slavery fosters strange relationships”). Although both Rufus and his father before him commit some acts of appalling cruelty, they are not portrayed as completely evil people. There are indications, particularly in the younger Rufus, that he has the potential to be a good person but as the years go by he finds it more and more difficult to think and behave any differently than he has been brought up to think and behave. Even the special bond he shares with Dana is strained as he becomes corrupted by the power he has, as a white man, over those he considers inferior.

I don’t know what Butler’s other novels are like, but this one is as much historical fiction as science fiction. We learn very little about the actual technicalities of Dana’s time travel and are never given a scientific explanation as to why it might be happening. The time travel is really just a device to get Dana into the past and explore what it was like to be a slave from the point of view of a modern day black woman. I have read other novels that deal with the subject of slavery but never from this perspective. It was fascinating and really helped me to understand what slavery was like (as far as it’s possible to understand without actually experiencing it yourself). I loved this book!

I received a review copy from Headline via Bookbridgr

11 thoughts on “Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

  1. Sam (Tiny Library) says:

    I thought this one was excellent, too. Like you, I appreciated the subtleties in Butler’s writing, that she didn’t make Rufus just evil. I’m looking forward to reading more Butler at some point….

    • Helen says:

      I thought she did a great job of showing how complex the subject of slavery was. I’m looking forward to reading more of her books too, though I’m not sure which one to try next.

  2. Lisa says:

    She has been recommended to me, but I haven’t tried any of her books yet – this sounds like the place to start. I’m off to check the library catalogue.

    • Helen says:

      This is the first one I’ve read, but it was definitely a good place for me to start. I think her other books have stronger science fiction elements than this one.

  3. Alex says:

    Like you, Butler’s is a name I know without ever having read anything by her. This doesn’t sound like my usual sort of read, but then what’s wrong with moving out of your comfort zone for once? Definitely one for the tbr list.

    • Helen says:

      Of all Butler’s books this is the only one that did actually sound like my sort of read. I’ll have to step out of my own comfort zone if I’m going to try any of her others.

  4. realthog says:

    Great review. I was knocked out by this novel, which is the best of Butler’s that I’ve read. There’s real pain in it, as well as so much more.

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