Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler takes time travel and blends the science fiction concept across race, gender, and DNA with the main character going back to the antebellum South to save an ancestor in order for her to live in the future.
The story starts with Dana, a Black woman in 1976 Pasadena, California, who is in the hospital recovering from the loss of her left arm and waiting for her White husband Kevin to finish with the police. How she loses her arm is a journey that begins on her 26th birthday when she finds herself in 1815 Maryland saving a White boy from drowning. When she asks the boy’s name, she learns it’s Rufus Weylin. The name rings a bell because the boy is her ancestor, the father to one of her foremothers, Hagar who was born in 1831. Dana needs to save him, so he can eventually plant the seed for Hagar with his slave Alice Greenwood to make sure she will exist.
Before she gets in trouble for being a free Black woman in 1970s attire, she finds herself back home to a worried Kevin. She is later summoned again by Rufus where he is burning the curtains in his bedroom. Dana realizes she returns to the past under Rufus’ control when he is in trouble and the only way back home is her own fear. As fear controls the time travel, Dana returns to the past again, but this time Kevin holds on for the ride. Now, she and her husband are stuck in the antebellum South where their interracial relationship is illegal. Kevin tries to find his place as a White man in the prior century by spending time with the slave-owning Weylins while Dana is adjusting to life as a slave and befriending Alice and the other slaves. The inhumanity and cruelty of slavery motivates her to uplift the slaves with her futuristic ideals, but it results in Dana receiving a punishment so severe that it scares her back home—without Kevin. She is determined to return to save her husband and her ancestors to make sure her existence comes into being.
This masterpiece is categorized as science fiction, but it exceeds the genre by having the main character return to the past to save herself instead of traveling to the future to save the world. The story emphasizes the complicated nature of African American ancestry with the slave master being a part of the bloodline and Dana needing Rufus to survive in order for a Black branch of the bloodline to lead to her birth.
There is a dependency between Dana and Rufus as Dana wants to exist while Rufus, who accepts Dana as a time traveler without knowing their shared lineage, also wants to exist subconsciously despite his tendency to fall into life-threatening situations. Dana sees Rufus grow up, and as Rufus becomes a man, he begins seeing Dana in a sexual light, especially with her resemblance to Alice. That development confuses Dana, who wants to keep Rufus happy for her survival and the survival of the slaves on the Weylin plantation.
What also adds another dimension to the story is Dana having a White husband in a time when their marriage is legal but still receives negative attention. Her family and his family were not too happy when they married, so as she navigates her contemporary world in an interracial couple, she finds herself 150 years in the past dependent on Kevin to save them. Also, at home she depends on Kevin, the successful author with his best-selling book giving them the money to buy their new home where Dana begins her time travel. Dana wants to be an author, too, but her dreams take a hit in boosting Kevin’s career. For survival in both worlds, Dana has to work with her husband and her forefather because the color of her skin impedes what she can do.
The more Dana drops into the early 1800s, the more she realizes she can’t present herself as a free Black woman on a plantation. She gets closer to her other ancestor, Alice, who also needs assistance especially as a slave, but their connection reaches the frustrated friendship level since Alice knows she can’t trust Dana with her disappearing acts and her tendency to stand by Rufus, Alice’s owner and rapist. Dana gets complaints from other slaves for wanting to be White and using that alleged privilege to her advantage.
The empathy fight Dana struggles with in having Rufus’ back when he follows the slavery law of the land becomes overwhelming. Every time she returns home to 1976 California, she has physical and emotional bruises and scars trying to make sense of her surroundings that are over a century and thousands of miles apart.
Overall, Kindred packs a multitude of elements into a novel that has a Black female character straddling two worlds in two different time periods and facing racism for her choices to survive in a world not set up in her favor.
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Kindred by Octavia E. Butler