Friday, November 4, 2016


KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quick review summary:
Part historical novel (antebellum South), part time travel mystery, Kindred is a powerful - sometimes painful - book about race, identity, and family. Masterfully written, highly recommended.

Full review:
In this book, Butler tackles slavery and race relations, cleverly woven into a time travel story. It follows the life of Dana, a young black writer, as she bewilderingly and repeatedly finds herself back in the South during the time of slavery. She gradually determines that each time she is pulled into the past, it is because a white boy (and later, a grown man) named Rufus is in danger. Somehow, she is snatched back to rescue him. The problem is, she is trapped there for an unknown length of time, and must survive at a time when most blacks were slaves. Butler gives an unflinching account of life as a slave, including several beatings and whippings. But we also see the relationships between slaves, between slave and owner, and among whites. Nothing is black and white (pardon the pun) - but there are many shades of gray in all these relationships. It is a complex society, but one that is obviously ill. Butler gives us no “Gone with the Wind” happy-go-lucky “darkies” - instead we see the physical and emotional cost of being owned by someone else, and having no ability to direct one’s life. It is a harrowing account, on all levels.

The time travel is never explained, which is fine in this story. It is clear that the link is between Dana and Rufus, and we eventually learn what ties them together. But throughout the story, Dana is at the mercy of whatever it is that pulls her back into history. She has to cope with the jarring dissonance of being a slave one moment and then being back in modern America the next. She learns to prepare for her next journey, by keeping a bag of essentials (such as aspirin) with her at all times. Her husband is also drawn into the journeys, further complicating matters. I liked that Butler never goes into the “science” of the time travel, or how it happens. It just is.

The parts of the story that take place in the past are obviously quite well researched, with many details of life as a slave, and life in general during that time period. Obviously, because slavery is involved, many of the scenes that take place in the past are difficult to read, because of the physical and emotional cruelty. But these do not overwhelm the narrative, which really focuses on the people and their relationships. It is not a simple novel, yet it reads as such, which is a credit to Butler’s skills as a storyteller.

For anyone interested in the topic of slavery and the antebellum South, this would be an essential read. I would also highly recommend it for those who enjoy time travel and the conundrums therein, as long as they don’t want to know the science behind the time travel.

No comments: