Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Kindred - Octavia E. Butler

As an on-again-off-again fan of science fiction writing, I’ve known of Octavia E. Butler by reputation for years. She was, after all, inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010, so it would probably be more surprising at this point in Butler’s long career for someone not to recognize her name than it would be for them to recognize it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that I had ever actually read her work. Then a week or so ago, Butler’s name and books were mentioned several times in segments of a video course on science fiction writing I was working my way through. Because of my fondness of time travel novels, the novel that particularly caught my attention was 1979’s Kindred.

 

I expected Kindred to be somewhat of a thriller during which a modern California black woman, a writer by trade, finds herself trying to stay alive – and free – in the Deep South during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. As it turns out, Kindred is that and much, much more.

 

Dana and her white husband are in the process of moving into their new 1976-Los Angeles home the first time that a bout of time-travel-inducing dizziness strikes her. Within seconds, Dana finds herself on the muddy banks of a river staring at what seems to be the lifeless body of a little white boy. Springing into action, she manages to resuscitate the boy just in time to save his life. But as she looks up to catch her breath, Dana finds herself staring into the barrel of a gun being held by a very angry man. Even terrified as she is, Dana does not have time to react before she suddenly finds herself, wet and muddy, back inside her new California home.

 

Dana, although she is unable to predict when it will happen, learns that she is being called back into time over and over again to save the life of one of her ancestors, the son of the same man who seemed ready to kill her when she appeared out of nowhere to save the boy’s life for the first time. Unfortunately for Dana, Rufus, a very reckless child, grows into a self-destructive drunkard as a young man – and she is the only thing keeping him alive until he can father the child with one of his father’s slaves that will keep Dana’s family line intact.

 

Octavia E. Butler
This is the science fiction/time travel premise of Kindred, but that’s about as much “science” as Butler ever offers the reader. She does not try to explain how it is possible for Dana – and anything in contact with her, including her husband, Kevin – to leap back and forth from 1819 to 1976. Nor does she ever address the usual time travel paradoxes with which fans of the genre are so familiar. Instead, this is a novel about a woman who “knows” that her ancestors had been slaves not all that long ago. Slavery, in fact, had only been dead for 111 years upon publication of Kindred, so Dana’s own great-great grandmother had been a slave. But there is a fundamental difference in knowing that your ancestors were enslaved for generations and actually  standing alongside your great-great grandparents knowing that one of them is a slave owned by the other.

 

Dana arrives in 1819 Maryland a modern woman, one completely overconfident that her education and modern sensibilities will protect her from the harsh reality of the times she finds herself entrapped in. By the time she learns just how naïve she is, she is lucky to be alive – or not working the steaming cane fields of southern Louisiana. So, will her luck continue long enough for Rufus to father the child that links directly to her portion of the family tree or not?

 

Bottom Line: Kindred explores an aspect of American slavery that is seldom tackled so well in historical fiction: the different emotional effects that generations of slavery had on a people who knew no other way of life. Butler considers the ones readers most often read about, those who never lose their desire for freedom, but she gives equal time to those who manage to justify slavery to themselves even to the point of feeling almost at ease with it, what becomes for them a choice of “security” over the greater, scarier unknown out there. The author also explores the insidious culture that spawned generations of whites capable of such cruelty for over 200 years by showing how Dana’s white husband himself is unconsciously affected by his own five years of living in early nineteenth century America. Perhaps most surprising to Dana (and to readers), is how quickly she adjusts to life’s new rules and some of the things she is willing to do to make her life as bearable as possible. Octavia Butler herself did not consider Kindred to be a science fiction novel – and it’s easy to see why.   

8 comments:

  1. The premise of this one intrigues me. I'll have to take a closer look at it. I've heard of Butler, but I've never read her before.

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    1. This one seems especially timely considering everything going on in the States today, so it's kind of hard to believe that it was published in 1979. I love the way that the characters, all of them, of not simply portrayed as good or bad people. There's a lot of grey in this novel. I'm almost willing to bet that it's more insightful than many similar novels being written today.

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  2. I, too, love well-written time travel novels. I read Kindred back in 2008, which is the year I started my blog. I thought it was fantastic, and-- as you said-- so very much more than a science fiction novel. Kindred has a lot to say, and Butler can certainly pack a punch.

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    1. I loved the character presentations in this one, the depth and the nuances made most of them seem like real people living during a period in our history that none of them really thought much about. It just was...I liked Butler's attempt to show how society shaped the character of all her characters, be they black or white.

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  3. I've never read any books by Butler, although I've been meaning to read this one for several years now. You know how those bookish intentions go sometimes. ;D

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  4. This won't be my last. Her prose is kind of stripped down and straightforward which makes for a relatively quick reading pace, and sometimes that's exactly what I need.

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  5. Gosh, I've only read one book by Butler and that was years ago. Wild Seed was impressive and has stayed with me, but I've never read anything else by her. Kindred sounds like something I might try.

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    1. I would definitely recommend this one. Now, I will say that up to about page 80 or so I was beginning to believe that it would not get past the cliché stage. But Butler did it. And she did it very well.

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