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Gone with the wind this ain't!
Kindred - Octavia Butler
Member Name: Renza_e
Kindred - Octavia Butler
Date: 08/11/11, updated on 08/11/11 (59 review reads)
Advantages: Realistic gripping narrative, colourful characters and reads like a piece of history.
Disadvantages: It had to finish!
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~*
Summary: One of the best books I have read in a long time!