As I have mentioned before, I’m trying to read books from a more representative range of authors this year. I have always read more female authors than male…I just have always gravitated that way. But I realized that I was not doing as well reading books from a variety of racial, ethnic, sexuality, etc. authors. And so I’m trying to be more intentional with the books I pick up this year. Relatedly, as I am sure you can tell from my “read” list that I am super into fantasy/sci-fi, which traditionally is one of the most male, specifically white male, dominated genres. Recently, there have been a lot of women bursting onto the scene, many in YA fantasy/sci-fi (but I’ve also talked recently about how I think the YA/adult line is getting super blurred, so I am not counting all that for now), but still significantly fewer minority authors. I did some research, found out that Octavia Butler is billed as the first black woman to write sci-fi, and just knew that I needed to read her. I started with Kindred because it was her first, so I figured it should be mine too.
“Slavery was a long, slow process of dulling.”
Kindred tells the story of Dana, a “modern” (though to be fair, the 1970s are no longer considered all that modern) black woman who is, on a random afternoon right after her 26th birthday, suddenly transported back in time to the antebellum south. It turns out that a distant ancestor of hers, Rufus Weylin, is the white son of a Maryland plantation owner and some kind of connection forms between them, so that when Rufus’ life is in danger, Dana is “called” to help him. Over the period of a few months (in present time anyways), Dana is called back 6 times to rescue Rufus, each time staying longer and longer, getting more immersed in slave life on the plantation and facing more and more danger/harm.
This book is a fascinating mix of sci-fi and historical fiction. In fact, I was surprised by how much more historical fiction it is than sci-fi. I mean yes, there are the obvious time travel and crossing your own historical timeline features, but those moments are quick compared to the rest of the story. Not to say that that’s a bad thing. This is one of the most immersive “salve memoir” pieces of historical fiction that I have ever read. The times that Dana spends in antebellum Maryland are by far the most realistic and visceral parts of the novel. They cover themes from her complicated relationship with Rufus, as a black woman in a weird slave/freewoman line who holds incredible power over his fate, to Rufus’ own internal struggle over his love for some of his slaves and his growth into a “man of the time” who sees those same people as his property, to the reality of life as a house slave versus that of a field-hand, to the many intricacies and tensions within the slave community itself to, most importantly, the truths of being a slave and what the absolute lack of rights actually means in real life. This last, the illustration of the myriad dangers, fears, horrible treatment and overall lack of autonomy experienced by slaves in America, is the real crowning exploration of this novel. Throughout, these themes are examined and developed in an incredibly full, multi-dimensional way. We also get small glimpses of life in the mid to late 70s in America, which I’m qualifying as part of the historical fiction aspect of the book at this point. Dana, in her current day life, is married to Kevin, a white man. As we read, we get more details about their relationship and some of the challenges they are facing (primarily with their families) as the US struggles with the ramifications and repercussions of slavery and segregation (issues we’re nowhere near done struggling with issues today.)
Something interesting about the writing itself is that, for most of the book. I felt like it was very didactic, unemotional, clinical even. Dana’s matter of fact, analytical, responses to everything from the time travel itself, and the reasons why/how it’s happening, to the horrific acts she sees and experiences as a slave seemed…dispassionate. Even the dialogue, including most of her interactions with her husband (where she could be the most unabashedly upset or affectionate) seemed closed off and too composed. It was strange because, even if she felt like she couldn’t outwardly show anything or act on any of her feelings, her inner reactions should have had more feeling, more passion. It was a strange writing style for me to adjust to. (Partway through, it occurred to me that maybe that was on purpose. Maybe Dana actually wasn’t all that shocked. Perhaps her life in the 70s, the inequality she lived, had prepared her in a way that I cannot ever understand, as a white person. Perhaps I’m over-thinking it.) Relatedly, this book, at times, felt like it was written as a “primer” about slavery. Many of the “philosophical” arguments/discussions Dana has with Rufus and Kevin are written as if the reader has likely never considered these viewpoints on slavery and slavery-related issues before (for example, her conversation with Kevin about the young black children on the plantation “playing” at auctioning each other off) and Butler is taking things slow, easing them into it, trying not to overwhelm or “blow out of proportion” (as if that were possible) these feelings. I don’t know if that’s a product of when it was written (and hopefully things have progressed some since then, although I only halfway believe that) or if it’s something else, but I felt it was worth mentioning.
In any case, the style made me feel like I was not getting a sense of tangibility from these characters. The descriptions of the life and experiences were completely immersive, as I mentioned, but the characters themselves were less so. Yet, when I finished reading, their stories had somehow transformed into something so solid that I actually felt I had read an honest to goodness memoir, and not a work of fiction. I truly cannot say when or how that happened, but I was surprised and impressed by it. The ending itself was also deftly done, a mix of finality and open-endedness that perfectly fit both the story/characters and the reality of record keeping/preservation at the time. And it nicely touches on the tragedy of the loss and lack that passes for familial and cultural history for most descendants of slaves living in the United States today.
This book really is something special and I absolutely respect both Butler and this story for what they are and what they did. I wanted so much to love it, but it just was not my personal style. When I go into sci-fi, I’m anticipating (and looking forward to) something more like Solomon Rovers’ An Unkindness of Ghosts. It may have been a mix of my skewed expectations, as well as a writing style that did not completely resonate with me, but something here just didn’t hit home. However, I definitely enjoyed, and was impressed by, this novel. And the themes are just as important and salient for this country now as they ever were – we must not forget about or lull ourselves into complacency about the state of inequality faced by so many. The status quo can always be changed. I for sure will be checking out more of Butler’s work, with a little more knowledge and preparation this time, and can’t wait to see what I think of it!