Kindred by Octavia E Butler
I bought this novel having been inspired by a review on here. Take a look it is the only other one on this book on both Ciao and Dooyoo and is an excellent review. I studied American Studies and black writers while I was at college and have long been interested in literature set in the time in slavery in the southern states. Although I realize 'Gone with the Wind' shows a very idealistic view of slavery I just loved the film, the music and the scenery were so amazing and for its time the scenes of the battles and soldiers lying injured was pretty graphic.
The twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of this novel published in February 2004 sold over 250,000 copies and I am ashamed to say that it had totally escaped my attention until reading the aforementioned review. Presumably this means that the original novel was written in 1979 some 25 years before.
Apparently "Kindred" was rejected by many publishers as they could not understand how a science fiction novel could be set on a plantation in the antebellum South. Eventually one publisher agreed to publish this and paid her a $5,000 advance for this novel.
A BIT ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ms Butler came from very humble beginnings as her father was a shoeshine man who sadly died when she was a child. Her mother was a maid who took Octavia along with her to her various jobs. She was a very tall child, reaching six foot by the time she was fifteen which meant she was given grief at school by class bullies.
She became a successful writer in a field that is dominated by white male authors. She was a shy and very private person but someone with a warm generous spirit and that comes through in her writing.
Sadly Ms Butler died at the relatively young age (my own age so VERY young!) after falling and hitting her head on a pavement outside her home in Seattle.
Her books have become very much a part of the US curriculum over the years and I still can't believe I hadn't heard of her before.
Anyway back to the book. This is classed as Science Fiction but it really crosses the line into historic fiction as the descriptions of antebellum southern America are historically accurate and portrayed in great detail without unnecessary extra drama. She is able to describe scenes as an outsider as the main character is an outsider herself.
Dana, a young modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new (white) husband when she suddenly feels dizzy and wakes up not in her home in California but in the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and it seems that Dana has been sent to save him. Over the next few weeks Dana is called back again and again to rescue Rufus from one scrape or another.
Naturally, when Dana arrives in the past she is still black and therefore in great danger of becoming a slave. She quickly realizes her survival depends on her relationship with Rufus and it is this inter- dependent relationship that is central to the story.
Dana's husband sees her disappear and come back after seconds in modern time while this was days in her transported time. He finds this story hard to believe but when Dan goes dizzy again he grabs hold of her and is transported back with her. Their marriage cannot be in that time so he becomes her 'owner'.
I won't go into more detail as it would spoil the story for you should you want to read this. Suffice to say that Dana discovers that Rufus is actually father to one of her ancestors and it seems that she has to keep rescuing him in order that her ancestor can be born and therefore she can also have her life.
The book starts with Dana in hospital saying last time she went back she lost her arm. We don't discover why this happened till the end but we are always aware of the danger this travelling back is for Dana.
I found I did care about the characters and wanted to read on but they were a little stereotypical.
Rufus' parents were both fairly typical but thankfully when Dana came back with Kevin he was able to help smooth a path for Dana's return in the future. The father, Mr Weylin although horrible, did have some respect Dana as a person after she disappeared in the midst of him beating her. He came to realize that she was someone unusual and he could not treat her as he did the slaves.
Mrs Weylin was just weird and mentally unstable but fairly insignificant in her role in the story in my view.
There are a few slaves whose stories we get to know. Most importantly for Dana there is Alice, her ancestor who was a free born black woman who sadly becomes a slave when Rufus falls for her. Sarah is the cook, a tough lady and respected by the other slaves and says what she thinks. She has had a pretty bad time as all of her children have been sold by Mr Weylin except for a mute daughter named Carrie. Carrie has not been sold as she would not be worth much and also by keeping Carrie, Mr Weylin has a hold on Sarah as she won't run away and leave Carrie. Carrie is a gentle and sensitive and much wiser than most people give her credit, she becomes a very useful friend of Dana's.
Rufus became more objectionable and typical of a white farm owner but somehow his relationship with Dana tempers his attitude towards the slaves a little. He was still very unpleasant and had few redeeming features and I did wonder how Dana could continually rescue him knowing how objectionable he was at times. It was all to do with his fathering her ancestor but somehow I find that aspect of the book hard to believe. That is probably my skepticism of Science fiction coming through.
Dana was somewhat more believable but a little too good to be true at times. She was friendly with the slaves and was able to choose to work and helped them in the kitchen. The field slaves were not so impressed with her but did give advice when she ended up in the fields one day and was struggling. I just felt she was able to cope rather too well with her travelling back to a time that should have been hell on earth for her.
Kevin, her husband had a pretty bad time in the book and strangely he seemed to age during his stay in the past where Dana never did. That I feel is a fault in the novel and annoyed me. However his love for Dana and indeed hers for him gives them the strength to survive the ordeal that they both suffer in such different ways through their time travel.
THE WRITING STYLE
The book is written in a simple style rather like that of a slave's diary. Indeed it is kind of Dana's diary as she manages to keep some notes on scraps of paper while she is back in the past.
It is very easy to read and would be accessible for teens as well as adults. It would make an excellent book to read in school as a basis for discussion about racism and how things have changed in many ways but at the same time we still have elements of racism in our society today.
READING BEYOND THE STORY
What I did like about the book was the way the author brought into the story some quite awful things but didn't dwell on them or focus on them. They were there are we were told but the reader didn't have these things hitting them on the head over and over again.
For example a free black lady was caught sleeping with her slave husband and as a punishment she was beaten and he was sold. How barbaric is that?
When Dana returns from her time travel she spends a lot of time researching the time to try and better understand and cope with her life when she is there. She is often there for months at a time but when she returns to her modern life it may only be hours. This does mean that she has to cope with some tough times. I love the way she packs a bag full of things she might find useful and one of these is painkillers which come in very useful in nursing Rufus and Alice back to health.
At one time in the story Dana, along with all the other slaves is brought to watch a beating. She like many of us has seen these things on television and films but "I hadn't lain nearby and smelled their sweat or heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves."
This is where the use of Dana is part of the story and also as an observer becomes a very useful way of telling the reader of events and how a modern person might see this which somehow makes it become more real.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
I have read a number of reviews on Amazon saying how wonderful this book is and what a fine piece of fiction. I am torn here as I did find the book grabbed my attention, I found it very easy to read and liked the style but somehow felt it lacked a bit of depth. I found the story quite clever once I got over the time travel element but I did find it really annoying that Kevin aged many years in his time away while Dana appeared not to age at all. I hate discrepancies like that. Another annoying thing was that those in the past aged at different rates. Once after only a few hours away they had aged years but another time Dana didn't go back for some days and only months had taken place.
I found the characters interesting but I would have liked a bit more depth. I feel we lost that at the expense of the story. It would have been interesting to know a bit more about Sarah and Alice's life.
I found it hard to picture the house as the description was so brief. I just imagined "Tara" in "Gone with the Wind". Little things like this would have helped me build a picture of the place. I feel the author was relying on the reader having some background knowledge. Maybe this is because she was writing Science Fiction rather than historical fiction.
Despite my misgivings I would recommend reading this as it is very different from other novels set in the antebellum south. I didn't learn anything new but thought the idea of a black lady with all the advantages of the 20th century being transported in time back to possibly the worst place for any black person to have been was an interesting idea which largely worked. I just wish that had been a bit more depth to the story and characters.
Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.
'Kindred' tells the tale of a twenty-six year old black woman named Dana who is busy unpacking boxes in her new home with her husband, Kevin. Overcome with dizziness she finds that she is unwillingly transported from 1976 California to plantation-era Maryland. Travelling back in time she finds herself in the outdoors and saves a young boy from drowning. The next few weeks of her life prove to be tough. She is repeatedly transported back and forth between 1976 and the 1800s. She soon discovers that the reason why she is there is because the boy she saved, Rufus Weylin, is the son of the plantation owner and a white ancestor of hers and on each journey back, she ends up saving him from danger. She must work out why she is being brought back to the Antebellum South and what she must do during her time there. It is certainly not a place for a black woman of 1976 and each trip to the past proves to be longer and more dangerous than the last. Dana goes on to discover that she must not only learn to survive on the plantation but she must make sure that her black ancestor, Alice, has a child with son of the plantation owner, Rufus. This child will become Dana's direct ancestor and we find ourselves a common time travel scenario featured in science fiction. Dana must ensure her own birth by making sure that the birth of her ancestor occurs.
However, this is not your run-of-the-mill science fiction novel. In fact, it is debateable as to whether it truly belongs to such a genre. It has more in common with historical fiction than any science fiction I have ever read. Dana doesn't travel back in time because of a marvel of engineering but because of a psychic force that transcends the boundaries of place and time. She has no Delorean or Tardis, no doctor to assist her on her travels. The book's author, Octavia E. Butler, admitted that there is no science in this novel and that it is more of a 'grim fantasy' than anything else. It doesn't matter how Dana travelled back in time. What matters is what happens when she does...
*~IT LIES LIKE THE TRUTH...~*
This novel straddles the genres of science fiction, historical fiction and fantasy and this makes for an addictive and gripping read. This is largely because it is so realistic and true to the history of the era. Octavia Butler really did her research when she was writing this book, reading slave narratives and visiting Talbot county, where the book is set. If Dana and Rufus Weylin were real they would have found themselves living during a time when real-life people like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas were working hard to escape the shackles of slavery and help others escape with them. You therefore gain a sense of the time and place, of the relationship between black and white people and it reads like a piece of autobiographical narrative. Using elements of history, Robert Crossley suggests that 'like all good works of fiction... it lies like the truth.'
This is a book which feels more real than many history books I have read on the subject of slavery. When she briefly returns to 1976 after a trip to the past, Dana finds that no historical account she reads can prepare her for her first hand experience of slavery. She deplores works of fiction like 'Gone with the Wind' stating that 'it's version of happy darkies in tender loving bondage was more than I could stand.' She grows to learn what the true experience of slavery meant and romanticized accounts like 'Gone with Wind' act as an insult to the memory of slavery and Dana's experience on the plantation.
In stark contrast to some rose-tinted accounts of slavery, Butler tells a story of true suffering and hardship which reflects the real experience of slaves at this time. Their world was 'a sharper, stronger reality. The work was harder, the danger was greater and the pain was worse.'
The book begins with the sentence: 'I lost an arm on my last trip home'. From the outset, this presents a sense of great danger. Everything about this world is brutal, raw and hard. Plantation workers endure backbreaking work, slaves are whipped like cattle, families are broken apart by the mere whim of a greedy slaveholder looking to become richer through the sale of their members and one scene features the rape of a slave woman who refused to give in to her master's affections. The novel is quite harrowing in places, truthful about the violence of the age.
At one point in the story, Dana observes the beating of a slave, whose crime was to be found in bed with his free-born wife without written permission from his owner. Dana speaks of this disturbing experience:
'I had seen people beaten on television and in movies. I had seen the too-red blood substitute streaked across their backs and heard their well-rehearsed screams. But I hadn't lain nearby and smelled their sweat or heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves.'
Slavery was brutal and Butler makes every effort to portray this fact. Not even Dana, with her education and 1976 mind, can escape the brutality of the period. You may even hope that Dana's white ancestor Rufus would grow up gentle and enlightened after several visits from Dana at various points in his life. However, even Rufus cannot escape the fate of becoming a harsh and cruel plantation owner, much like his father. Black or white, people are tainted by their experience on this Maryland plantation...
*~BRINGING THIS EXPERIENCE OF SLAVERY TO LIFE~*
One of my favourites things about this novel are the colourful and complex characters within its pages which bring Dana's experience of slavery to life. Settling into life on the plantation, she finds a family amongst the black slaves of the household. There is Alice, her ancestor and a free born black woman who becomes a slave of Rufus when she becomes the object of his affections. There is Sarah - the cook, a matron amongst the servants and a mother figure to all. She presses on with her life despite having most of her children sold off by plantation owner, Tom Weylin. She is the lady who teaches Dana how to cook and how to survive on the plantation. She has a mute daughter named Carrie who is not sold off because of her defect. Carrie is a sweet, compassionate woman who later becomes a friend to Dana.
The black household of the Weylin plantation have to endure the treatment of their masters. Tom Weylin, Rufus's father and owner of the slaves, is a despicable and cruel man who fails to see any humanity in his slaves, selling them off whenever he incurs debt. He doesn't like Dana because he feels threatened by her intelligence and he resents her independent ways. His wife, Margaret, is no better. She mollycoddles her son Rufus and treats the slaves like dirt. An unpredictable and hysterical woman she is constantly yelling at the slaves and Dana learns to keep out her way.
Tom and Margaret Weylin make life difficult for the slaves on the plantation and the reader hopes that Rufus will grow up to be a better character than his parents and will learn to treat the slaves well. However, Rufus himself is a complex character and the reader grows to fear that he will become as harsh as his parents were. He develops an obsessive love for Carrie and her lookalike descendent, Dana. He comes to treat both women as his property and demands that they never leave his side. Through his development into a young man, the reader begins to fear he is not the good man that Dana hoped he would become.
A significant character I cannot fail to mention is Dana's white husband Kevin from 1976. Kevin faces shock when Dana disappears and reappears before him when they are unpacking boxes in their new house. At first he has trouble believing that she has travelled to and from the past. However, the book takes an interesting turn when, during one of her dizzy spells, Kevin grabs hold of Dana and ends up travelling back with her. In 1976, Dana and Kevin's interracial marriage was somewhat novel - in 1819, it was unheard of. Kevin has to take on the guise of Dana's slave owner and this adds an interesting dynamic to their relationship. Kevin and Dana's relationship is a highly important relationship which gives the reader hope. Her love for Kevin helps her endure the extreme hardships she faces on the Weylin plantation. Despite the damage slavery caused - its more immediate damage in the 1800s and the legacy it left in 1976 - Dana and Kevin's relationship serves as a beacon of hope in both modern times and the past which they both have to endure.
*~'I WAS TRYING TO GET PEOPLE TO FEEL SLAVERY'~*
'Kindred' is an inspiring book which is very easy to read. It is written in an arresting straightforward style from the first person perspective of the protagonist, Dana. Butler claimed that when she wrote the novel she was 'trying to get people to feel slavery...to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people.' I can say that she has been very successful in doing so. The novel draws in the reader and even if the events are fictionalized you get a sense of the reality and emotions of the period.
Octavia Butler herself is an inspirational lady and I was saddened to read that she passed away in 2006 at the relatively young age of 58. She grew up during a time when not many black women or, indeed, women, were writing and publishing science fiction. In fact, she was one of the first women to publish science fiction in the 1970s.
In writing 'Kindred', Butler produced a novel which takes on the style of a slave narrative imaginatively recreated through the sci-fi device of time travel. It is powerful story with well-developed characters and great emotional depth. It evokes a great sense of the past - both of the experience of the physically abused blacks and psychologically warped whites.
I must admit that I am fascinated by black history in the USA and therefore fascinated by this book. From the slave ships to Martin Luther King and beyond, I find it difficult to ignore history which maps such an arduous journey to freedom and equality which spanned hundreds of years (and some would argue is still ongoing).
This book draws from the past and is both tragic and uplifting. It is a flight of fantasy and yet is so heartbreakingly real. Certainly, it is one of the best books I have read in a long time and captures the spirit of a difficult and heavily prejudiced age.
Its story is engaging, its characters are real and interesting, and it is a book that keeps you hooked from start to finish, right up until the very last sentence!
*~Thank you for reading my review :-) Also published on Ciao under username Renza - Nov 2011~*