There are books that stay with you, and this is one of them. I always hear raves about Octavia Butler, yet her books aren’t exactly mainstream titles. I knew I wanted to read something by her, but wasn’t sure where to start (thanks to favorite blogger Alley for her review).
Kindred has a deceptively simple concept, and in fact is a lot like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander: main character Dana somehow gets transported back in time to the antebellum South in the early 1800s, to a plantation where her ancestors lived. Dana doesn’t know why or how this happens, only that it does.
Like Outlander, Dana is in a lot of danger in this earlier time – she’s alone, vulnerable, and stuck in a violent time. She doesn’t know how to get back, and there’s danger in the transport itself. This book begins with a very unsettling incident of Dana returning to the present with her hand smashed inside a wall.
But here’s the big difference: Dana is an African-American woman, transported to a time when she has NO rights as a human being.
Butler says in an interview at the end of the book, that she really wants this book to bring to life what it must have been like to be a slave. I think this book comes as close to that as it possibly can.
The story itself was fascinating and, while a little slow at first, became hard to put down. Dana is called to the past to protect the life of Rufus, a white slaveowner who is first introduced as a vulnerable young child. Because of this strange connection, Dana’s life becomes intertwined with Rufus’. She’s ripped apart from her new husband, Kevin (a white man) and sent into a time where she has no papers, no family, no protection. On the other hand, unlike the other slaves, she has an escape that they don’t – although it’s a dangerous, unpredictable one that she has little control over.
Butler doesn’t go easy on the reader. Dana is genuinely terrified, and has to live by her wits, and has to make compromises to survive that she never imagines she’s capable of. This story isn’t simple and it isn’t preachy.
What I also appreciated was that Rufus isn’t a horribly sadistic slave-owner, nor is he a sympathetic one. Butler says he’s meant to be average for his time. Dana develops a complicated relationship with Rufus based on dependency, fear, and at times affection. What starts out seeming simple becomes anything but. The rest of the characters never seem stereotypical or one-note.
Butler really manages to convey Dana’s fear and also her outrage as a modern woman. It’s a constant struggle for her to fit into this time. At first she talks about feeling too set apart from the lives of the slaves, but as the book goes on she becomes closer and closer, to where she feels herself losing her modern consciousness. I loved the depth of this book.
“Most of the time, I’m still an observer. It’s protection. It’s nineteen seventy six shielding and cushioning eighteen nineteen for me. But now and then, like with the kid’s game, I can’t maintain the distance. I’m drawn all the way into eighteen nineteen, and I don’t know what to do. I ought to be doing something though.”
I appreciated Butler forcing me to step briefly into the world of slavery. It’s a difficult book to review for that reason. It’s not an easy read, although it moves quickly. But it’s a book you should read, and a book that will definitely stay with you.
This book counts towards the TBR Pile Challenge.