I’ve been meaning to read Octavia Butler’s Kindred for a long time. This book and Butler’s name come up a lot if you read science fiction or fantasy. She was a pioneer within the genre. Starting in the 1970s, she wrote stories with black female protagonists, a character type she saw was lacking in the genre. Kindred, published in 1979, is her best-known and best-selling novel.
When I posted about my resolution to read more diverse authors in 2016, a friend commented and asked if I’d read Butler’s other work. I said no, I hadn’t, but this was definitely the year. I’d gotten the ebook version of Kindred a few weeks before, and I started it that same day.
As soon as I read the first line, I was a little bit obsessed. And what a first line it is: “I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.” There was no way I could put this book down until I figured out what that was all about.
Kindred is the story of Dana Franklin, a woman living in California in 1976 who is mysteriously transported to a plantation in early 19th century Maryland. She realizes fairly quickly that she’s been sent back in time to protect her accident prone ancestor, Rufus Weylin, and that if she fails to keep him alive long enough to father children, she herself may never be born.
It’s a take on the classic sci-fi trope of the Grandfather Paradox—if you go back in time and kill your grandfather, your parent will never be born, then you will never be born, but if you don’t exist you can’t go back and kill your grandfather. Since Dana’s focused on keeping Rufus alive, the paradox doesn’t result, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t complicated.
Rufus is the white son of a slave owner in the antebellum South. In order to keep him (and by extension herself) safe, Dana has to blend into her surroundings. That means pretending to be a slave, a brutal existence that she feels totally unprepared for. Then there’s Alice, the young black girl who will be the mother of Rufus’s child, if he lives long enough. Dana has few illusions about how mixed-race children of the time were usually conceived, and she fears that she’s continuously rescuing a future rapist.
Butler sets down rules about time travel and sticks to them, but she doesn’t provide a lot of explanations. One of the afterwords in the edition I read mentions that this isn’t H.G. Wells, and there are no shiny time machines. We never find out how Dana is transported, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. This is a story about time travel, but it’s also about family, and justice, and the meaning- of home.
Kindred has cast of well-drawn characters from both time periods. As much as she abhors slavery, Dana sees that the Weylin family is a product of their times, and even develops a fondness for Rufus. She is shocked by some seemingly contented slaves, but later realizes that their outward behavior hides a different story. Some of the other black characters resent Dana for her education and her closeness to the Weylins, and she experiences cruelty from them (although it pales in comparison to what she suffers at the hands of whites).
One of my favorite things about this book was the relationship between Dana and her husband, Kevin. Butler reveals their courtship and marriage through flashbacks. Kevin is white, and both he and Dana encounter people in the 1970s who look down on their inter-racial marriage. These scenes keep the book from being a simplistic “the present is better than the past” morality tale; life is not free of prejudice for Dana and Kevin even in their own time. Still, they love and support each other through everything, and they make it clear that they’re willing to sacrifice everything for one another.
Dana and Kevin have no children, but there are a lot of motifs about parenthood and parent-child relationships running through the book. There’s a particular focus on the black women who give birth while in slavery. Sometimes the child had been fathered by the white plantation owner. If the child survived infancy (not a given, in that time period) they lived under the constant threat of being sold away from their mothers. It made me think about a presentation I went to in college that mentioned Kindred, an honors project about representations of black motherhood in fiction. The presenter pointed out that when modern feminists talk about reproductive rights, we’re often talking about the right to not have a child, the right to prevent or terminate a pregnancy. Black women in slavery, by contrast, wanted the right choose the father of their child, and the right to raise their own children. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Octavia Butler, writing this novel during the height of second-wave feminism, included these themes deliberately.
Dana, as a visitor from another time, is used to having more of a say in her own fate. She’s determined to make her own choices, even when none of the possible outcomes seem positive. Her journey and the decisions she makes are the basis for a powerful story that resonates throughout history.
I absolutely loved this novel, but I’m not I’ll be in a hurry to reread it. Just like confronting our own history, this book is neither easy nor comforting. That makes it all the more important.