★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Octavia Butler amazes me. She writes science fiction that is full of complicated ideas about race and sexuality that are completely readable. I’ll innocently start reading, thinking only to get a solid start on the book, and suddenly discover I’m halfway through the story. That isn’t to imply she’s a light-weight, however; her works are emotionally and ethically dense, the subject of numerous high school and college essays. A recent read of Dawn (review) inspired a number of recommendations for Butler and a buddy read of her book Kindred.
The quick summary: Dana is a young woman in Los Angeles moving into a new apartment with her husband when she is suddenly pulled into the past. She saves Rufus, a young red-headed white boy, from drowning, finds herself on the wrong end of a shotgun, and is suddenly returned to home, only to discover mere seconds have passed for her husband. Kevin, also a writer, wants to challenge her story–except that he saw her vanish and reappear three yards away from where she was. As they struggle to understand the where and why, it isn’t long before she is pulled away again–this time to save Rufus from burning his house down. She remains longer this time, discovering she is now in Maryland in the year is 1815, at the plantation home of Rufus’ father, Tom Wylein, and slavery is still a very active practice. The story continues through several more time changes as Dana attempts to understand the reasons for being pulled back in time, her connection to Rufus and her strategies for staying alive as a black woman in 1815.
It sounds rather deceptively simple, but has such emotional and ethical complexity that it is a powerful read. The genesis of the story occurred when Butler was attending Pasadena City College during a time when the Black Power Movement was very popular. She heard a young black man blaming older black people for “holding us back for so long” because of their servility/acquiescence to dominant white culture. She realized that he lacked historical context for his peoples’ lives and didn’t understand their survival strategies. Kindred was a way to revisit that history and see how a ‘modern’ person could cope with their knowledge and experiences. While she originally envisioned Dana as a male character, she realized that there was no way a man would not be perceived as threatening in that situation, and she couldn’t write realistically without him getting killed, “that sexism, in a sense, worked in her favor” (Callaloo, “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler,” C.Rowell, Winter 1997).
While it is technically science fiction, Kindred is more like a mix of historical fiction and modern fiction, similar to Connie Willis’ Time Traveler (To Say Nothing of the Dog review) series. Butler adeptly avoids a common genre trap, and doesn’t bother explaining the mechanism for time travel. Another successfully avoided trope was disbelief of the protagonist, a technique I appreciated. Many authors allow character to get lost in the self-doubt of an “am I crazy?” reaction, but this focuses on the essence of the experience and identity issues caused by the struggle to survive in 1815. Dealing with a slave plantation means the narrative is strongly focused on race. Interestingly, however, Butler allows the reader to develop a ‘racial-neutral’ character feel for Dana for the first few chapters; it is only when Rufus refers to Dana as a ‘nigger’ that the reader realizes Dana is black. Later, Dana relates how she and Kevin met, leading the reader to the realization that Kevin is white, and the challenges they face as an interracial couple are enormous from one century to the next.
Yet, through all of this, Butler avoids the didactic tone that might alienate a reader. She she explores differences in thinking by recounting Dana and Kevin sharing perceptions, and by developing supporting characters that also have their own point of view on adapting. Unable to demonize Rufus, Dana is pulled both by human empathy and by a more unknown connection and actually can’t write him off if she is to survive–in both 1815 and 1976. The relationships between all the characters were quite complicated, and I appreciated how much it added to the story. I generally shy away from historical fiction and was still absorbed. Butler managed to surprise me a couple of times with the plotting, and her characterization is absolutely human; I suggest reading her on that basis alone. Highly recommended.
A shout-out to 1stAvenue for agreeing to a buddy read and inspiring me to read this book!