Kindred (Octavia E. Butler)

What an interesting premise — I’m really interested in the conflation of past and present, the active role required by the protagonist to ensure her own existence, the interaction between contemporary life and history. I had a concern that Butler’s novel had the potential to turn into a thought experiment with little depth or serious consideration of the matter. However, it definitely was much more than a simple thought experiment. Instead of just asking what might happen if a modern African American woman suddenly found herself in the antebellum South, Butler pushes the novel to get at some much deeper issues. For instance, she interrogates the idea that African Americans accepted their slavery when they could have fought harder and gotten out of it by showing how her characters (even a modern American woman) are coerced into their roles on top of the physical threats and dangers as well as the legal and vigilante repercussions surrounding any “disobedience.” By giving Dana a white husband, Butler further complicates the situation by forcing the reader to consider the situation from both sides of the color line. It would have been interesting if she had made her protagonist an African American man who happened to be married to a white woman, but it also would have changed the entire plot (obviously). I did find myself wishing for this at some points just because Kevin’s race lent itself so easily and simply to the master/slave structure, and because Dana’s role as caretaker sometimes rubbed me the wrong way (to be fair, these are my own anti-domestic issues coming out, not anything Butler did).

I remain fascinated by Butler’s decision to have the time shifts come about in moments of near-death. I’m still a bit puzzled by it, but find it interesting that she chose to focus in on these dangerous moments — these times when the characters feel that they are in mortal peril. It’s interesting that Rufus finds himself in these situations as often as (or more often than) Dana (if she were allowed to live her own life without being pulled back into her past). I was also curious about her decision for Dana to never reveal her ancestry to Rufus, even when (plot spoiler!!) he was about to try to rape her. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect that to have made a difference for him, but it’s also something that felt like a loose thread.

One last thing: Butler selected Rufus and Dana with great care, and the results are this complex novel filled with moral gray moments. By beginning with Rufus as a boy — a boy who clearly has the potential to be kind and treat people fairly — Butler emphasizes the deep structural racism of American culture in the antebellum South and the ways that even kind-hearted white people might ultimately be nurtured out of their natures (if that makes sense). Also, but thrusting a strong contemporary African American woman back into the past and gradually forcing her into slavery, she confronts certain notions (as discussed above) that attempt to justify slavery (to an extent). Also, by illustrating the many physical and emotional forms of coercion placed upon each slave (as recognized by the increasingly helpless Dana — made more and more helpless as she comes to care deeply for the other African Americans on the plantation), she brings the reader to an understanding of the many pressures and dangers facing all of them.

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