Published by Beacon Press on February 1st 2004
Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction, General, African American, Contemporary Women, Social Science, Slavery
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Without any warning, Dana Franklin is thrust back through time and space. It’s 1976 and she’s settling into her new California apartment when she starts to feel dizzy. Her modern surroundings fade away and suddenly she’s in antebellum Maryland. She seems to be inextricably linked with Rufus Weylin, the young son of a plantation owner. Dana is pulled to Rufus anytime his life is in danger, which happens with surprising frequency. The era is dangerous for Dana–she’s black and has no enforceable rights. It turns out that she and Rufus both need each other to survive, but they are also capable of destroying each other.
Slavery was a long slow process of dulling.
Kindred is a quick read because the language is plain and it’s dialogue-heavy, but there’s so much to unpack. I was surprised that the logistics of Dana’s time traveling were never addressed, but the time traveling is just a framework to explore the themes. Octavia Butler describes it as a “grim fantasy” and there’s no science. Dana’s story begins in 1976, two hundred years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It’s such a whirlwind! Because of the mechanics of Dana’s time traveling, each chapter begins and ends with a life-threatening situation. The chapters have titles like The Fire, The Fall, etc. that give hints of what’s to come and add to the intensity. Rufus is a few years older every time Dana returns to the plantation, so we get to watch him and the other characters as they grow up and their roles on the plantation evolve. Dana is always marked by her experience when she’s transported back to California, sometimes permanently. When we first meet Dana, she is laying in a modern hospital bed after her left arm has been amputated.
“The ease seemed so frightening,” I said. “Now I see why.” “What?” “The ease. Us, the children … I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”
Dana was intellectually aware of the horrors of slavery, but her education doesn’t prepare her for the brutality she actually experiences. She sees how inadequate Hollywood is at portraying the real thing. Dana is shocked at the ease with which people settle into their institutionally-defined roles, herself included. She’s especially shaken when she sees the children playing slave-trading games. Dana notices that despite the disdain with which we view slavery now, wide-scale, government-sanctioned oppression has been allowed to occur repeatedly in the modern era. She specifically mentions Nazi Germany and apartheid in South Africa.
“Better to stay alive,” I said. “At least while there’s a chance to get free.” I thought of the sleeping pills in my bag and wondered just how great a hypocrite I was. It was so easy to advise other people to live with their pain.
Like many slave-owners, the Weylins use family attachments to keep the slaves in line. Dana’s hands are similarly tied by family; her entire ancestral lineage depends on Rufus. Dana has to betray her modern values in order to ensure her eventual birth. In an era with only bad and worse choices, she begins to empathize more with the slaves on the plantation. With hindsight, it’s easy to create caricatures of those in the past and forget that they are complex human beings with nuanced relationships. Dana sees firsthand how privileged it is to judge someone’s actions from a safe distance and how sometimes what seems like the best course of action can have terrible ramifications. But even Dana falls into the trap of feeling superior to others: “I looked down on her myself for a while. Moral superiority. Here was someone even less courageous than I was. That comforted me somehow.”
His father wasn’t the monster he could have been with the power he held over his slaves. He wasn’t a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper.
In Han Kang’s Human Acts, there’s a section about how everyone has the potential for good and evil and the character wonders how humans can be directed towards the more humane path. Kindred explores how institutions drive behaviors and make it hard to change anything. Sometimes there were glimpses of potential goodness in the Weylin men, but the brutality always wins out. Dana tries to exert a progressive influence on Rufus, but it’s an impossible task when everything else in his world is working against her efforts.
There are some parallels between Dana’s life in the 1800s and the 1970s. In 1976, Dana works what at she calls “the slave market,” a temp agency where “nonpeople rented for a few hours a few days, a few weeks.” At first, it made me think about the casualness with which words like “slave” and “Nazi” are thrown about in the modern world. But as the parallels continued, I also began to see the way the remnants of the past worm their way into our present and the basic human impulses that can snowball into something horrific.
Strangely, they seemed to like [Rufus], hold him in contempt, and fear him all at the same time. This confused me because I felt just about the same mixture of emotions for him myself. I had thought my feelings were complicated because he and I had such a strange relationship. But then, slavery of any kind fostered strange relationships. Only the overseer drew simple, unconflicting emotions of hatred and fear when he appeared briefly. But then, it was part of the overseer’s job to be hated and feared while the master kept his hands clean.
At one point Dana’s husband Kevin, a white man, is also transported to the Weylin plantation, which adds some additional complications. His presence makes it safer for Dana because he can pretend to be her owner, but what happens if she gets transported back to 1976 and he’s unable to grab onto her in time? She’s also worried about what this era will do to him. Will it destroy him or rub off on him? Kevin is essentially a good man, but sometimes clueless. I expected more from him, so sometimes I’d be as angry with him as I was with Rufus. Like Rufus, he is more progressive than his forebearers but he’s still a man of his time. There are times in both 1976 and the 1800s where he’s unable to see outside the lens of his own experience. He remarks on how plantation life isn’t as bad as he would’ve expected, unaware of how different Dana’s experience is and unable to confront the true horror of something he’ll never be subjected to.
Repressive societies always seemed to understand the danger of “wrong” ideas.
The most jarring thing about Dana’s character is she quickly accepts her fantastic situation. She seems somewhat detached from her experiences. Much of that is purposeful as she eases into her role but maintains an observer’s distance. However, from the beginning she remains remarkably levelheaded. While Dana sometimes felt “empty” to me, Butler really brings the supporting cast to life: Alice, Luke, Nigel, Carrie, Sarah, and even characters with smaller roles like Sam. Maybe Dana was written the way she was so that the reader could essentially “inhabit” her body and become a time traveler themselves.
My edition included a critical essay by Robert Crossley, which includes information on Octavia Butler’s background as well as analysis of Kindred. There were some aspects I picked on, but many I didn’t. Because of my prior knowledge and the book cover, I didn’t notice that Dana’s race was withheld until a specific moment. I loved learning about Butler’s mischievous reasoning behind choosing a spouse for Dana. Crossley also writes about how the science fiction landscape and the nature of the “alien” changed with the inclusion of female authors, which was really interesting.
I’ve been meaning to read Kindred for a long time, but I just now made time for it in preparation to read Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation (review coming soon). One thing is clear: I need more Octavia Butler in my life! I think those that enjoy this book might want to try The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which addresses slavery but plays with time in a different way. Even if you didn’t like The Underground Railroad because some of the liberties the author you took, you might want to give Kindred a try. Despite the time travel, it keeps an accurate historical timeline.