Kindred by Octavia E. Butler: A-

kindredFrom the back cover:
Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother.

This is the third book that I’ve read by Butler, and like the others it tells a gripping story about a strong black woman protecting herself amidst dangerous circumstances.

The crux of the book hinges on the relationship between Dana and her white ancestor, Rufus Weylin. When she first travels back in time, Rufus is about five years old and Dana takes advantage of his age to encourage him to form enlightened opinions about the treatment of black people. In any other book, she would’ve succeeded in cultivating Rufus into a kind-hearted abolitionist. It’s far more intriguing, then, that Rufus instead turns into such a complicated man. He can be loving and generous, but his love is an extremely possessive variety, and he’s often blaming others for making him hurt them. It would’ve been so much easier if they’d just complied, you see. Dana finds herself forgiving him for his various misdeeds, and their relationship goes into some uncomfortable but wonderfully unpredictable places.

Secondarily, Dana gets to know the other slaves on the Weylin plantation, most of whom are subjected to sorrows and degradations at the hands of their white masters. Dana is initially disdainful of their acceptance of this life of slavery, but gradually learns—through bitter experience—just how difficult it is to break free. She herself must constantly be on guard for her own personal liberty and towards the end of one of her later stays, finds herself acquiescing to the whims of white folks with alarming ease.

About the one complaint I could make about Kindred is that it gets a little repetitive, with the countless trips to Rufus’ time and back to 1976, especially toward the end when only a few months have elapsed between visits. Also, and this is specific to the unabridged audiobook read by Kim Staunton, the fact that the voice used for Rufus doesn’t substantively alter between childhood and adulthood really takes one out of the story. He would’ve come across as far more menacing if he had sounded properly like a man.

This book was recommended by Margaret, who said, “I think it will be a book that stays with me for a long time.” I concur.

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  1. I had the opportunity to read Kindred as part of a Feminism in Science Fiction course back in grad school. It was a chilling read, especially when Dana’s husband gets dragged into the conflict. I haven’t read anything else by her, although someone did recommend Fledgling.

    • I just realized I didn’t talk about her husband’s involvement at all, but you’re right. Especially the part where she returns to look for him and, rather than just look on dangerous situations as a way to return home, she now has to try to endure them in order to stay there and look for Kevin.

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