Monday, February 8, 2010

"Kindred" by Octavia Butler

Summary: Dana, a black woman living in 1976, suddenly vanishes from her home and reappears by a lake where she rescues a drowning white boy, Rufus.  Threatened by the boy's father, Dana reappears at her home, only to be drawn back to save the boy's life over and over again.  Dana comes to learn that she is being taken back in time to the antebellum South, and the boy she is saving is a white slave owner--and her ancestor.  As Dana remains stuck in the past as a slave for longer period of time, she must struggle in an era that sees her as nothing but property while also ensuring Rufus', and thus her own, survival.

Musings: In general, I'm most strongly drawn to the science-fiction and dystopian genres, but I've found it difficult to find science-fiction beyond the white heterosexual normative.  I started looking and was excited when one of the first posts I came upon was at The Angry Black Woman entitled "Mindblowing Science Fiction by POC."  One author whose name came up again and again was Octavia Butler, so I was excited to pick up Kindred at the library.  (I'm still looking for more LGBT science fiction!)

Kindred only loosely fits the science-fiction genre, as its time traveling is more a mechanism for the story to take place rather than a part of the story itself.  Nonetheless, I was completely taken in by the novel. Kindred is perhaps one of the most terrifying books that I've ever read, and it does so with real characters facing agonizing decisions.

Living in 1976, Dana experiences prejudice and racism (just take the reaction to her marriage to a white man).  However, being thrown back to the early 1800s is another thing all together.  In those times, she has absolutely no rights--any white coming upon her can do as he wills.  Kindred clearly relates the ways in which the institution of slavery is designed to suppress slaves and make resistance difficult.  The reader is forced to share Dana's agonizing frustration as she finds herself unable to retaliate against mounting injustices and abuse.  However, Dana also experiences moments of success, and her very existence is evidence her ancestors' ability to carry on.

Dana's relationships with two white men--Rufus and her husband Kevin--further complicate the story.  Dana and Kevin have a strong relationship, but when Kevin is also brought back in time with Dana, he must assume the role of a slave owner.  He does it to protect Dana, but it's also clear that regardless of Kevin's sympathies, he cannot experience and understand life the way Dana does.

Rufus is a pathetically needy man whose society gives him the right to demand, and take, the "love" he desires but is not given freely.  Dana struggles with her own ambivalent feelings towards him.  In a critical essay on the novel, Robert Crossley notes that Butler's works explore "the webs of power and affection in human relationships... the ethical imperative and the emotional price of empathy" (268).  In many ways Kindred is a psychological look at the way relationships guide and shape our behaviors across lines of race and gender.

Butler has created complex and interesting characters and a fast-paced, if not emotionally draining, story.  True to history, the novel does not end with complete hope or despair, and the white slave owners are not redeemed nor solely vilified.

Crossley mentions that Butler was one of the first recognized African American science fiction writers, and Kindred is an excellent and different approach to the genre.  I know many of Butler's other works are more traditionally science-fiction, and I'm eager to read more by her.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge and the TwentyTen Reading Challenge (completing the "Older Than You" category).


  1. Kindred is not traditional sci-fi but it is a read that stays with you. I knew after reading it I would read more of Butler.

    I highly recommend Blood Child, a collection of short stories. Wildseed is good. Do read the Lilith series for a solid sci-fi read.

    Thanks for the review.

  2. I just picked up Bloodchild at the library, so I'm looking forward to reading it! I've heard only a little about the Lilith series, but perhaps I'll need to try that next.