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Would you travel back in time to rescue one of your ancestors?
Kindred - Octavia Butler
Member Name: catsholiday
Kindred - Octavia Butler
Advantages: Easy to read style of writing and good story
Disadvantages: Some time travel discrepancies and chaarcters lack depth
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.
Summary: A Science fiction story set in a dramatic time in history