Kindred by Octavia Butler

ImageThere 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.

  11 comments for “Kindred by Octavia Butler

  1. Cedar Station
    February 13, 2014 at 10:13 am

    This sounds incredible. I will definitely add this to my to-read list! Thanks for the review.

  2. February 13, 2014 at 10:34 am

    Because I have a bi-racial, adopted daughter these kinds of books are always doubly hard for me to read. I think they’re important, though, because they force white people to really think about the lessons of the past. So, thanks for bringing this one to my attention — I’m definitely going to check it out!


  3. February 13, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    Sounds good. I just read Passing by Nella Larson which deals with two African-American women in the 1920s; with this book I can travel even farther back in time. Love the review!

    • February 14, 2014 at 4:45 pm

      I’ll have to look up Passing. Thanks for commenting!

  4. February 13, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    I have been meaning to read this book forever. I must get to it in 2014!

  5. February 13, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    I never would have picked this up but for a challenge from the folks at The Estella Society. Oh my word am I glad I did. Such a great read! I’m so glad you liked it 😀

  6. February 14, 2014 at 11:53 am

    I’m so glad you liked this! And thanks for the shout out 🙂

    Your review is excellent. You nailed so many things about it, especially how complicated everything is. Butler doesn’t create one-dimensional characters. You’re making me want to read this again.

    • February 14, 2014 at 4:44 pm

      Thanks! I admit to being heavily influenced by your own review. I’m so glad I finally got to this book.

  7. February 16, 2014 at 7:28 am

    I’d never heard of Butler but the fuss over the film of Twelve Years a Slave seems to have had a knock on effect since I found her book being promoted in the store along with the book of that film.

  8. February 17, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    I really enjoyed this book when I read it last year. Butler has a wonderful way of giving me TONS to think about. My only other experience reading her work was “Bloodchild,” a brutal short story that tackles many of the same issues in Kindred but it’s far bloodier and has a sci-fi setting. Amazing story, though. Truly.

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