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.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler: A-

From the back cover:
Lauren Olamina’s love is divided among her young daughter, her community, and the revelation that led Lauren to found a new faith that teaches “God is Change.” But in the wake of environmental and economic chaos, the U.S. government turns a blind eye to violent bigots who consider the mere existence of a black female leader a threat. And soon Lauren must either sacrifice her child and her followers—or forsake the religion that can transform human destiny.

Parable of the Talents picks up five years after the end of Parable of the Sower. Lauren has successfully established an Earthseed community named Acorn, home to about sixty people. They’re self-sufficient and doing well until a well-organized group of crusading Christians arrives to wipe out their heathen ways. Acorn gets turned into Camp Christian, its members enslaved, and its children (including Lauren’s newborn daughter) “rescued” and given to Christian families. The rest of the novel chronicles Lauren’s attempts to find her daughter while trying to ensure that Earthseed succeeds.

The story is told in excerpts from Lauren’s journals, as well from writings of her husband and brother. These selections were chosen by Lauren’s now-adult daughter, who introduces each segment while gradually providing more information about her own life. The daughter finds a lot of fault in Lauren’s actions, especially Lauren’s refusal to heed her husband’s request that they move and raise their child in a more established community. Feeling like she always came second to Earthseed, the daughter is resentful.

I love that we get not only Lauren’s first person explanation of her actions and motivations but also a dissenting voice, critical of the protagonist’s flaws and failings. There’s a great line where the daughter says that if her mother had created Acorn, peaceful haven for the homeless and desperate, but not Earthseed, she would’ve been able to find her a wholly admirable person. I’ve not seen this kind of framework before—protagonist’s story interspersed with unstinting criticism of protagonist. It’s interesting and I admire it a lot.

There are a few things that bug me a little, though. The cultish creepiness of Earthseed is more apparent, now, with established rituals, ceremonies, and hymns, but this is balanced by the daughter’s obvious disdain for the movement. Also, it seems that every Christian man (and practically every man, period) is a hypocrite, molester, or sadist. The ending is also rather rushed, but nonetheless ends on a very satisfying note.

Dark, grim, and fascinating, this duology has been a very good read. I recommend it.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler: A-

From the back cover:
God is change. That is the central truth of the Earthseed movement, whose unlikely prophet is 18-year-old Lauren Olamina. The young woman’s diary entries tell the story of her life amid a violent 21st-century hell of walled neighborhoods and drug-crazed pyromaniacs—and reveal her evolving Earthseed philosophy. Against a backdrop of horror emerges a message of hope: if we are willing to embrace divine change, we will survive to fulfill our destiny among the stars.

Lauren’s diary entries begin in July 2024, on the eve of her fifteenth birthday, and continue through October 2027, when she is eighteen. In the meantime, the walled neighborhood near Los Angeles in which she and her family live is destroyed and she is forced out onto the road, heading north in search of a better life. Lauren is mature for her years, however, and is more prepared than anyone else for the day when catastrophe strikes. On the road, she collects companions and instructs them in the new religion she has discovered (she states firmly that she did not invent it) while searching for a place they can settle and create a community.

I wondered initially whether I would like this, or if it’d be too religious for me. There were times, indeed, where Lauren’s instruction of her new traveling companions did seem a little creepy and cult-like. Earthseed is really more of a philosophy than a religion, though, and boils down to: “There’s no God who cares about you. So stop sitting around, praying for His intervention, and take care of things yourself.” Since I don’t disagree, the religious stuff didn’t end up bothering me too much.

I found all of the dystopic details very interesting, though occasionally gruesome and horrible. The plot wasn’t complicated—let’s walk North!—but the various encounters with dangerous and desperate people turned what could’ve been a boring travel narrative into something engrossing. I also really liked Lauren, who is smart and level-headed, as well as the way race was dealt with (it’s mentioned and not ignored, but neither is it the defining trait of any character).

I’ll definitely be reading the sequel, Parable of the Talents, and probably checking out other things by Octavia E. Butler, too.