Kindred

By Octavia Butler
Beacon Press, ISBN: 978-0807083698
Paperback, 264 pages. © 2003

Dana and her husband, Kevin, are unpacking boxes in their new home the first time she is called away. A wave of nausea and dizziness are her only warnings before the world around her fades to black and reforms into an unfamiliar scene. Woods. A river. A screaming child, drowning in the water. Without thinking, Dana pulls him from the water and begins CPR despite the boy’s mother, dressed oddly, who screeches and pounds Dana’s back. Once the boy is again breathing, she turns to find an antique rifle pointed at her face. And then… The world turns black and she is back in her new home with Kevin.

Again and again, for seconds, then minutes, then hours, Dana is pulled away to save the same boy/teen/man who turns out to be her ancestor, Rufus, son to a slave owner in the antebellum South. However, Dana’s deep knowledge of history could never have prepared her for living the experience, for even though she is recognized as something unique, she is also just another black-skinned slave, property to be used, abused, or sold. And time doesn’t work the same in that past. What is minutes for Kevin is days or weeks for Dana. As Rufus matures, he becomes more dangerous until Dana is torn between saving her ancestor and salvaging her own bloodlines or risking it all for her own safety.

Kindred is an interesting study in racial tension. Butler apparently did her homework. The white slave owners reflect typical behavior for that era, horrific as it is, and not everything is as it seems. Even among the slaves in Dana’s visits to the past, the uncertainty of their future tended to foster distrust and reluctance to open up to one another. They never knew from day to day whether they would be sold away, or beaten, even killed. None of them had any control over their lives or even their bodies; women who bore babies either to other slaves (who they were not legally allowed to marry) or to a white man watched as those children were sold away at a young age.

But the misery of their existence went beyond these obvious abuses into subtler, yet no less offensive manipulations, all of which were intended to dispirit or dehumanize or quell feelings of resistance. I’ve always thought of slavery as an offense against human rights and dignity, but this story really got under my white skin. It made me ask uncomfortable questions about my own ancestors, though I suspect I already know the answers. I probably would not like them any more than Dana did. The reactions of Dana’s white husband, Kevin, also point out how advantaged individuals even in a more modern era can demonstrate prejudiced, discriminatory and misogynist attitudes without meaning to do so, sometimes without even realizing they are doing it. Dana’s story opened my eyes even wider than they were already.

Kindred is classified as science fiction, but even the author said it held no science. Still, the time-travel element is enough to make it spec-fic. Butler tells the story in a wholly believable fashion. Dana’s actions and reactions feel authentic. I can understand why she did the things she did, even when I would have liked to see her react in a different way. Her experiences are life-threatening, life-changing. I’m not sure I could have done any better, in her place.

This is an uncomfortable read. Kindred will make you face unpleasant realities about the real history of this country and a basis for attitudes of “us and them” mentalities that are still in place today. If you don’t wish to question the roads that brought us to where we are, leave Kindred on the shelf. If you, like me, feel compelled to learn from the past so as to not repeat it in the future, Kindred is for you.