Book Review by C. Douglas Baker
KINDRED is one of those rare novels that grabs you by the throat and doesn't let you go until the very end. From the first sentence, Butler's simple, straightforward prose moves the story quickly making it nearly impossible for the reader to put down.
Dana, a black woman living in Los Angeles in 1976, is inexplicably transported to 1815 to save the life of a small, red-haired boy on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It turns out this small boy, Rufus, is one of her white slave owning ancestors, who she knows very little about. Dana continues to be called into the past to save Rufus, and frequently stays long periods of time in the slave owning South. The only way she can get back to 1976 is to be in a life threatening situation. During her stays in the past she is forced to assume the role of a slave to survive. She is whipped. She is beaten. She is nearly raped, twice. She is forced to watch whippings and families being broken up. She learns to enjoy hard work as an escape from the other horrors of slave life. And she watches as a fairly unassuming small son of a plantation owner grows up to be a cruel, capricious, hot-tempered slave owner in his own right. And to be her great-grandfather many generations removed.
KINDRED is about slavery and the scars it has inflicted on American society. There are really three key factors Butler focuses on that reveal the ability of the South to institutionalize slavery. First there is the physical abuse. The constant work, especially the physically exhausting work of a field hand, kept slaves too tired to run or become insolent. Being ever on the verge of a lash or two for minor offenses kept slaves working to avoid punishment. Being beaten nearly to death after escape attempts made a slave reluctant to try again; especially if this is coupled with the abuse of the slave's family. Then there is the psychological abuse. The continual threat of being beaten or watching others be beaten broke the spirits of those in bondage. The worst punishment was sometimes having to watch a family member abused for your transgression. Encouraging slaves to marry and have children also deadened their desire to escape. Families made the slave settle down, gave him or her something to protect and care for. The selling off of a few family members had a damping effect on a slave's spirit. A most poignant example is the slave Sarah, the primary house slave; "Weylin had sold only three of her children, left her one to live for and protect". She rarely questioned slavery, thought little of freedom, because "she had lost all she could stand to lose". The risk of losing the one daughter she had left was too great. Slaves that escaped had to be willing to risk not only their own life but possibly the lives of their family.
The physical and psychological abuse imposed on the slave made it so much easier to accept one's lot in life and avoid the unpleasantries that recalcitrance entailed. The ease with which Dana falls into the routines of everyday life as a slave shocks her. Work is a refuge from the other toils of slave life and the patterns become the norm. There is even an ambiguous feeling toward the slave owner. The slave owner is hated for the physical and psychological abuse imposed on the slave. But at the same time the slave loved the owner in a familial sense, even though the slave owner was seldom worthy of this. Thus slavery became for many the accepted norm of life, even if this acceptance was a tenuous and unhappy one at best. This acceptance was generational. Dana at one point espies children playing at selling each other on the auction block and haggling over price.
Many times throughout history sheer terror has been used to subdue a population and sap it of its strength. One only has to look at the Tsar's of Russia like Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Stalin to realize the extent to which terror can be used to subjugate a people. The Southern aristocracy of the United States practiced a similar terror till 1864 and beyond.
There is much historical evidence for the Butler's depiction of slavery and its effects. KINDRED is patterned after the slave narratives becoming more widely read today. These include Frederick Douglass' NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS, AN AMERICAN SLAVE and Harriet A. Jacobs INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL. Butler could have depicted the beatings and physical abuse in more graphic detail to have a greater impact on the reader.
Slavery even has its effects in 1976. The scars Dana brings back to 1976 are symbolic of the scars slavery has left on contemporary society. Some will heal with time. Some can never heal. Others will scab over and be just below the surface. But they are all there. But in another sense healing has taken place. Dana is married to a white man, Kevin, who is transported to 1815 with her once. While there they both fall easily into the pattern or act of slave owner and slave concubine, roles they must assume to survive. The ease with which they fall into these roles brings about a greater consciousness of their ethnicity. But through this relationship Butler leaves the reader with hope. Dana's love for Kevin is what really pulls her through the most harrowing terrors she faces and in the end gives her the strength to survive this horrible test.
KINDRED is written at the young adult level and moves along at a brisk pace. I highly recommend it for teenagers and adults.
on February 27, 2006
I heard today of the weekend passing of Octavia Butler. She is is in the "Hall of Fame" as an alumna of John Muir High School, Pasadena, which all four of my children attended.
"Kindred" was, for many years, required reading at Muir. It was through this connection that I was introduced to her writing by my daughter. She is my youngest son's favorite author, a tribute to her ability to transcend gender, race, and age in presenting ideas that no one else could ever have imagined. We were looking forward to meeting her as part of Pasadena's "One City, One Story" program which had chosen "Kindred" as this year's selection.
Butler was certainly not a "black author" in any limiting sense at all. She blasted open the SciFi gates of gender and color with her extraordinary vision, imagination, and courage. The choice of "Kindred" is a fitting tribute to the diversity of her hometowns of Pasadena and Altadena and the Pasadena Unifed School District in which she was educated.
It is rare that a passing of someone I have not personally met so saddens me. She is in a world without limits now.
Octavia Butler's "Kindred" is a novel which fits into many literary niches. It could be seen as a milestone in both African-American literature and science fiction; it's also a novel with a lot for feminist readers and critics. But ultimately the power of this book allows it to transcend all labels.
"Kindred" tells the story of Dana, a 20th century African-American woman who is married to a white man. Throughout the book Dana is mysteriously thrust back and forth in time between her world and the world of her ancestors in the 19th century. She seems to be tied to one ancestor in particular: Rufus, the white son of a slaveowning family. Part of Dana's struggle is to deal with the utterly alien world of Rufus' slaveowning culture.
Butler brilliantly weaves many powerful themes into this gripping story: violence, sexual desire, race, literacy, language, law, and education. The story is peopled with well-developed characters who have complex, interconnected relationships. Butler vividly evokes how the slave system both physically brutalized blacks and psychologically warped whites.
Butler's prose is lean and muscular. She grips you from the stark opening lines: "I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm." The story is richly ironic and heartbreaking. "Kindred" is a compelling 20th century literary descendant of such important 19th century slave autobiographies as "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" and Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl"; it is also a significant "sister" text to 20th century works (like Toni Morrison's "Beloved") which also revisit the era of slavery. But Butler's ingenious use of a classic science fiction device (i.e. time travel) sets the book apart from all of these other literary explorations of slavery. Whether for classrooms, book reading circles, or individual readers, "Kindred" is a triumph to be treasured.
on January 9, 2012
Time travel is so cool! What beats traveling back several hundred years in to the arms of a handsome Scottish highlander ... or traveling back in time to meet your spouse while she is still a child ... or traveling in time to solve a supernatural mystery in an attempt to save the future ... or traveling back in time to learn of the world's beginning or forward to witness its collapse. There are so many different ways time travel can come in to play in a story. I honestly thought I had seen and read them all when it came to time travel, but I could not have been more wrong. I had never before read a time travel novel, where the main character travels to an incredibly dangerous and distasteful time. The set-up of Kindred could not be more extreme - the main character is a young African American woman who is, repeatedly and without any control of her own, sent back in time to the antebellum south where she finds herself enmeshed in relationships on a plantation occupied and run by slave-owners and slaves. As an African American woman, such a trip into the past is not an easy one, nor is it safe. Each trip back becomes increasingly dangerous and more disturbing. But who was safe during that time period? Definitely not blacks, whether free or slave. Kindred does not shy away from telling their stories.
Kindred was published in 1979, yet for some sad reason I only recently discovered the author, Octavia Butler. Having finished Kindred in the space of two days, I intend to hunt down each and every book written by her. She is not an author I want to miss out on. Occasionally, reading a book written and published decades ago, particularly in the science fiction genre, makes the book less accessible and less enjoyable. This is absolutely not the case with Kindred. Kindred pulled me in from page one, the main character - Dana - seemed real; she seemed modern. Her thoughts, her concerns and her actions were not dissimilar from my own. Dana is a writer, who is married to another writer. They are a mixed raced couple living in Los Angeles. Their status as a mixed couple becomes important as the story progresses; it is a factor that allows the story to be broader than just Dana's experience. The pace of the book is intense and I could not put it down. I was pulled in and terrified at almost every step for Dana. Terrified for her well-being and for her life. Terrified that she would never see her husband again. Shocked at the brutality of the events as they unfolded.
Time travel and science fiction are labels that work to make this book seem more whimsical than it is. Kindred addresses heavy topics between the front and back covers - freedom, love, ownership, and survival. How does an individual survive in an atmosphere where every minute puts them at risk? How does an individual survive in a situation where their survival comes at the cost of another's loss of family and loss of life. How does one survive the loss of their children - taken at the hands by a cruel slave owner? How does a woman preserve her integrity - again at the hands of a cruel slave owner? The topics are dark and disturbing (as they should be), but the main characters are so genuine and likeable that while the subject matter is gruesome, it is still fed to the reader in the form of entertainment. In between the dark images and storyline, are bits and pieces of the love story shared between Dana and her husband and her desperate desire to remain in her own modern time with her husband.
on October 31, 2000
Despite the fact that the ideas and events in Kindred make it "unputdownable," the writing was a disappointment. I couldn't quite shake the feeling that I was reading a book targeted at a "young adult" readership -- one that needs to be educated about American racial history. When Dana makes a comment about slave life, then follows it up with "or so I read in my book," it comes across as contrived.
Time travel wasn't used as anything except a plot device. It would have been nice to see some exploration of the reasons Dana gets called back to Rufus, other than the fact that he's always in trouble. I realize that this is secondary to the plot, but if Dana exists in the future, Rufus must have been alive long enough to father her ancestor -- without her help. I had a little trouble getting past that.
I found the changes in Rufus interesting and believable -- he grows from a likeable little boy, into the ruthless, self-involved man he has to be in order to continue living as a slave owner. It would have been great if there had been more detail about Kevin's experiences in the five years he was stuck in the past. It would be interesing to compare how the two white men dealt with their race and their relationship with black people.
Overall, Kindred is a very readable book -- if a little simplistic.
on October 17, 2002
Not so long ago I've read for the first time a book from Ms Butler. I was immediately captivated by her amazing imagination and quality of her prose and became instantly a fan of the author. This first impression was corroborated as I read more of her writings.
All her books showed a rich mixture of imagination, complex and interesting characters and conflictive situations to test their mettle.
In "Kindred" the story is presented in a sci-fi framework, in order to give an entry point to a world distant more than a hundred years from us, but the substance is about getting in touch with slavery. Unearthing the relationships between slaveowners and slaves, drawing a huge fresco of that society.
Dana, an Afro-American woman, is drawn time and again to the past with the specific mission of saving Rufus' life, the son of a slaveowner and his heir. Each time Dana is transported backward, the drama increases. Poignant and vivid scenes are shown, reaching deep into the reader's sensibility, but with an earnest and straightforward approach. You can't elude perceiving the "reality" of the world shown in this amazing book. After reading it, I keep wondering about what strange compulsion make a human being to despise another one based on racial, religious or even political or social differences, without perceiving that we are kindred to each other.
Reviewed by Max Yofre.
on May 7, 1999
I love this book! I've read at least a half a dozen times yet each time, I become so engrossed that it leads to discusses and I end up lending my copy out and/or purchasing additional copies for family and friends. It's too good not to share.
Octavia Butler described the situation in such vivid detail that I literally had to read with my back to a wall, I had to be aware of everything around me. It was almost like a twilight zone feeling.
The character Dana travels back and forth through time and space to save her family. Once even (by accident) Kevin, her white husband, goes with her. It's amazing how good the author was at describing just how his attitude changed. Like I said, the story provokes such emotion.
My 13 year old son and I are reading the book to each other this week (one chapter each night). I want him to understand the many lessons this book presents from racism, love (both healthy and unhealthy), slavery and the development of a slave mentality (even in present day), trusting, having faith, and just believing.
on June 22, 2008
Ms. Butler combines the slave narrative with conventions of science fiction in this novel. Dana is a black woman living in the late 1970's with her white husband Kevin. She is transported back in time to the 1800's in order to save the life of her white, slaveholder ancestor. Once, Kevin is transported with her. She spends quite a bit of time in this period and is treated as a slave. Her 20th century upbringing and sensibilities quail at this and she tries to affect some change, at times with disastrous results. She is forever changed, both physically and mentally by this experience.
While I am quite used to stories of time travel, the slave narrative is new to me. This book was loaned to me by my African American co-worker when she found out I liked science fiction. I would imagine this book reads more like a slave narrative than science fiction, as the time travel is just a device to place the protagonist in this setting. Her experiences are heartbreaking, and remind us that it wasn't too terribly long ago that people of African decent were treated as less than human.
on September 13, 2000
I agree with many of the comments made in the other readers' reviews of "Kindred," and overall I would strongly recommend this book. If nothing else, "Kindred" gives you a better feel for slavery, and more of an understanding of what African-Americans have gone through in this country.
HOWEVER... I believe that there is a glaring ethical problem in "Kindred" which seriously weakens the book as a work of fictional literature. I realized the magnitude of this ethical problem largely thanks to a conversation with an African-American colleague of mine (I'm a white male), who is a great admirer of Octavia Butler's writing and who I accompanied to a speech and booksigning by Ms. Butler held at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. To state the ethical problem as succinctly and clearly as I can: How can Dana make the decision to keep a complex, but ultimately disgusting, repulsive human being like Rufus alive solely in order to ensure that she (Dana) will eventually be born, when that dooms another human being (Alice) to a horrible life (and eventual suicide) as Rufus' sex slave?
To me, and to my African-American colleague, the obvious (albeit extremely difficult and courageous) ethical choice would for Dana to let Rufus die, even if it meant sacrificing her own future existence, in an attempt to prevent another human being's (in this case Alice's) terrible suffering. By this reasoning, the fact that Dana allows Rufus to live and hence Alice to suffer so horribly in order that Dana might be born years later, is both a horribly selfish and ultimately a totally unethical decision.
But the problem with "Kindred" is not Dana's decisions (or lack thereof) per se but Octavia Butler's decision as the creator of "Kindred" not to have Dana at least agonize over this major ethical dilemma. Let me be clear: Octavia Butler's decision ultimately to have Dana act as she does in the novel is not necessarily wrong from a literary perspective. The problem is that Ms. Butler should have used Dana's choices to open up an important and potentially fascinating ethical discussion (selfishness vs. selflessness, is there anything worth dying for?, are there some conditions under which it is not worth living?, etc.). As it is, unfortunately, Dana shows close to zero self-awareness of the ethical choices she is making (or failing to make). Sure, Alice might still have ended up in a terrible situation or dead no matter what Dana had or hadn't done, but isn't this worthy at least of a discussion (or at the minimum an internal debate in Dana's head) in the book?
Despite this glaring problem, "Kindred" is an excellent and important book; at a minimum for its ability to make contemporary readers FEEL slavery (as opposed to reading about it in a textbook), and also for its demonstration of how easily it would be for many of us, if put in such a situation, to find ourselves following the path of least resistance ("there but for the grace of God go I") and either becoming a slaveowner or at a minimum accepting (and not resisting) slavery (or whatever other evil. All in all, "Kindred" is an excellent book, but it could have been much more. Still, I enjoyed it a lot, frustrations notwithstanding, and believe it should be read as widely as possible (and definitely NOT just by black female science fiction fans!) as a means of bringing a critical part of American (and human) history to life.
on April 25, 2003
I read kindred for a requirement for a college class. I typically do not enjoy reading books dealing with slavery, in fact there would be no chance of me reading this book if it was not for class. Imagine my surprise when i discovered that i actually enjoyed reading this book. It was very entertaining and at the same time got it's point across. Octavia Butler has a wonderfully vivid style that kept me wanting to read more.
This was not your typical slave narrative that persecutes all white people for the treatment of slaves in the 1800's, rather it asked questions that anyone alive today might ask, and then makes the reader think about why things are the way they are. She asks questions like: "How could anyone let themselves be a slave?", "Why not just run away?", or "How did treatment like this go on for so long?"
The main charecter in this book is an african american woman named Dana. She lives a very liberal life in 1976 Los Angeles with her white husband. She is portrayed as a strong independant woman who has strong moral values. Through some force that remains unknown througout the entire book, Dana is transported back in time to the antebellum south to find herself laying near a river. She is awakened to the screams of help from a young child. Dana helps save the childs life and is soon transported back to the future. Dana is taken back and forth through time throughout the book, each time to save this child's life. She soon finds out that this child is in fact her ancestor, and that she must continue to save him in order to ensure her existance. The child's name is Rufus, the son of a rich slave owning plantation owner. Dana, being a black women in the 1800's is forced to deal with many things she is unprepared for. Each trip back in time gets longer and longer and she is forced to learn to deal with a situation that is very tough. Through Dana's experiences in the antebellum south, this book shows the many hardships that slaves were put through and shows the not only physical but also mental abuse that made the slaves helpless.
Butler does a wonderful job at getting her point across and a wonderful job at telling an entertaining story. She brillantly fuses the more somber slave narrative with the exciting science fiction style in order to create an excellent book. I would recommend this book to anyone, even if this is not the type of book you enjoy.