Review: Kindred by Octavia Butler

6 Sep

Kindred is one of those books one might hesitate to review because—for me, anyway, I’m thinking, “Shit, I’m not worthy.” This is Octavia Frickin’ Butler we’re talking about here. Octavia Butler was a goddess in the world of sci-fi. Not only was she a frickin’ genius and wrote heavy, issues-laden, but ultimately engrossing books, she was a lady sci-fi writer. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age, but science fiction is still unfortunately a male-dominated field and for an African-American lady to come in, re-write the rules, and dominate? That is crazy-awesome. She also wrote about black chicks and made them the protagonist of her books even back in the day when people would refuse to read something just because the lead character is black. Shit, I’m pretty sure that’s still going on. She is admired and praised by veteran sci-fi writers, even by the alleged pompous sexist dickbag, Harlan Ellison. Can someone who writes snarky book reviews riddled with dick jokes that are not always funny really dare to *gulp* critique a book written by the great Octavia Butler? Pssssh…enough about me. Let’s get under the blankets, turn the flashlight on, and delve into… (melodramatic pause) Kindred.

Spoilers ahead.

The Plot as I Understood It The date is June 9, 1976 and Edana Franklin, twenty-six years old and an aspiring writer, has just moved into a new house with her white novelist husband, Kevin. Dana is unpacking and putting their things away when she suddenly gets very dizzy and can feel herself about to black out. She cries out in alarm and only has time enough to scream Kevin’s name before the world around her disappears and she finds herself outside, on the ground, surrounded by trees. In front of her is a river and a little red-haired white boy is drowning. Without hesitation, she jumps into the river, pulls out the white boy, and performs CPR on him even amidst the hysterical wails of the mother for Dana to get her icky negress hands off her son. The father of the boy comes running along and points a shotgun in Dana’s face. Just as Dana is about to get her head blown off while pissing herself in terror, she gets that dizzy feeling again and is sucked back into the present time with her husband staring at her with utter horror. Kevin tells her that he wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, but Dana REALLY FRICKIN’ DISAPPEARED IN FRONT OF HIM and teleported to the other side of the room in seconds. Dana is wet from the river water, scratched up, and cold, but before she can truly process what just happened, she is yanked back to the nightmarish hellhole she just returned from and this time, finds herself in a bedroom with the little boy—only slightly older—she saved from drowning setting fire to the drapes. Dana throws the burning drapes out the window and demands to know what the hell the little boy is doing. Dickweed Jr. confesses that he set fire to the drapes because he’s pissed at his dad who caught him stealing and subsequently punished him. Dana is flabbergasted and wonders if she should lecture the little shit against stealing and pyromaniac tendencies. Dana is also shocked because the little bastard keeps referring to her as a slave and the N-word, so she tells him that she doesn’t like that word and that she is not, in fact, a slave. Much to her surprise, the little boy Rufus Weylin—to whom Dana refers as “Rufe”—reveals that he saw where she came from and even heard her talking to Kevin before Dana showed up in Rufe’s room. But Dana doesn’t have the time to deal with what Rufus just said because Daddy is about to come through the doors, so Dana escapes out the window and runs to the woods where she finds a cabin occupied by a woman who could have been Dana’s twin. Dana realizes with shock that this must be the mother of Alice Greenwood who is her ancestor. Alice was forced by a white man to be his mistress and she borne him children. Rufus Weylin, the little shit, is actually Dana’s great-great-great-great-great grandfather. Alice and her mother are free, but Alice’s father is a slave in hiding. Angry white men searching for Alice’s dad break the door down and beat the crap out of Alice’s dad as well as her mother. Dana hides and waits until the white men are gone to help Alice’s mother, but one of them comes back and catches Dana as she runs away. As the man begins to rape her, Dana screams herself hoarse in fear, and is promptly thrown back to her own time.

Back with her husband Kevin, Dana realizes that her time-traveling nightmare may never end. It seems her young male ancestor Rufus Weylin, for some reason, has the ability to pull her from her time and into his whenever he’s in trouble. It’s obvious to Dana now that she has to keep little Rufus alive or she would never be born. Kevin insists that Dana must be better prepared for the next time, packing her a back full of first aid supplies and a switchblade. When Dana is about to get sucked into her dizzy wormhole again, Kevin grabs her and inadvertently gets sucked in himself. They find a pre-pubescent Rufus on the ground, his leg broken, courtesy of him falling out of a tree. Rufus’ friend Nigel runs for help and brings back Tom Weylin, Rufus’ father and Luke, a slave. Kevin and Dana had planned ahead of time that it would be better for the both of them if Kevin were to pretend that Dana is his slave, instead of his wife. Dana doesn’t necessarily like it, but both agree that NO ONE in Rufus’ time would cotton to the idea of a white dude marrying a negress. Tom Weylin offers the two of them Southern hospitality and insists they both stay even as the couple plans to escape to the North where they would be safer. In the meantime, Kevin becomes a guest of the Weylins while Dana sleeps with the other slaves in the attic and helps out at the kitchen and around the house. Dana is also assigned to read out loud to Rufus, who is recuperating from his broken leg. Rufus’ mother is suspicious of a “slave” who can read and write and is constantly hostile to Dana, but is super-flirtatious to Kevin, who is getting a little more than freaked out. When Dana gets caught teaching Rufus’ slave friend Nigel how to read and write, she is dragged to the whipping post by Tom Weylin and is severely whipped. Fearing for her life, Dana is flung back to her own time, but incidentally leaves Kevin behind since he was out of her reach at the time.

Back at home, Dana realizes that even though she had been gone for several weeks, only a day has passed in her own time. Worried sick about Kevin, Dana waits and waits to get called back, but it takes a full eight days before Rufus summons her again. This time, Dana finds a post-adolescent Rufus getting the shit beaten out of him by Issac, a slave, because Rufus had just raped Alice Greenwood. She manages to convince Issac not to kill Rufus and for Rufus to deny that Issac had kicked his ass, then drags Rufus back to the plantation while Issac and Alice run away. The two of them get caught anyway and Alice is severely beaten and attacked by dogs. In punishment for helping Issac escape, Alice is turned into a slave and Rufus buys her in an auction. Meanwhile, Dana is dismayed to discover that Kevin had moved on and Rufus denies knowing where he had gone. To manipulate Dana into helping him get Alice to “freely” sleep with him, Rufus tells Dana that he knows where Kevin might be and if Dana were to write Kevin a letter, Rufus would mail it to him. This might not be the easiest task for Dana since Alice, who is slowly recuperating, hates Dana for being a “house nigger” and a traitor for colluding with Rufus. Dana finds herself stuck in the hardest place possible, since she is forced to ensure that Alice develops a sexual relationship with Rufus or Dana herself would never be born. When she discovers that Rufus is full of shit and had never sent the letter to Kevin, Dana runs away, but gets caught and is savagely beaten. The house slaves tend to her and help her recover, while Dana resigns herself to possibly dying in the plantation having lost the resolve to run away again to find Kevin. Tom Weylin finds out that Rufus had broken his promise to send the letter to Kevin and remedies the situation. Kevin shows up and finds Dana, who is now a little more reserved than she used to be. The two of them run away together, but are stopped by Rufus who shoots at them. With her life threatened thus activating the wormhole, Dana holds on to Kevin and they return to their own time.

But it doesn’t stop there. Dana’s direct ancestor, Hagar, still hasn’t been born. Dana realizes with defeatist dismay that her enslavement to Rufus will not end until Hagar is born and Rufus himself dies.

The Heroine Dana is a strong, modern woman who is bravely married to a white man at a time when interracial relationships are not quite yet accepted by mainstream society. I’m sure when this book came out in 1979, a few eyebrows went up over this. Dana is smart, knowledgeable of history (which comes in handy during her trips to the past), and unerringly quick to adapt to any type of environment. Dana seems remarkably unfazed by the shit that happens to her in this book, which is characteristic of someone that some bad stuff has happened to. All she can really do is shake her head, take a deep breath, and say to herself, “Well, fuck a duck.” She doesn’t get outraged or react like a modern person living in Southern California with the privilege of civil rights might. She doesn’t say shit like, “But I’m an American and I don’t deserve to get treated like a slave!” She doesn’t have a sense of entitlement. She doesn’t get—as an asshole might say—”uppity.” She just…takes it, which is admirable in a way, but at the same time, kind of sad. Dana is the kind of person who can come into any situation, quickly assess what’s going on, and act accordingly. And she seems to always arrive at the conclusion that shit will just not go down like it’s supposed to and she better prepare for it. She just seems like the kind of person who’s used to being treated poorly or seeing things go south that she’s not surprised at all when it happens. She is world-weary and accepting of a nihilistic, self-punishing society. She’s someone who can be air-dropped into a shitty situation and trusted to look around, sigh at the shittiness, and get right to work. Like I said, while that’s an admirable personality trait, it’s really sad, too. She’s not a Pollyana from the future who teaches the slaves to be happy in their lot in life; she doesn’t teach Rufus to be a better person. She’d most likely to commiserate with you, say something like, “Damn, bitch, that’s tough,” get up and brush the dirt off her pants, then get on with her life. And I don’t blame her. Can you imagine trying to be a little Pollyanna during a time in America when white people enslaved black people? Slavery IS a shitty thing and Ms. Butler sugar-coats nothing. Dana doesn’t rally the troops and encourage them to throw off the yoke of oppression because what good would that do? She doesn’t even try to teach Rufus NOT to be a racist dickbag because she knows he’s a product of his time and no amount of telling him that “Nigger is a bad word” is going to get him to stop saying it. This isn’t a happy story. Dana doesn’t change the way anybody thinks or acts. This enlightened woman from the future doesn’t have that power. Even if Dana did manage to get people to change and hold hands, what good can that possibly do in that day and age?

Oh My Word This isn’t just a time-traveling story about a modern black woman who gets transplanted to a time where she would have been a slave; it’s a deeply personal experience for the protagonist because her very existence depends on the enslavement and continuous rape and abuse of an ancestor by her white master. While Butler effectively showcases the horrors of slavery and people who become so afraid of the whip and the rage of their masters that their fear effectively chains them to where they are without the use of actual chains, there is also the underlying theme of obsessive love. Rufus becomes so obsessed with the free woman Alice that he makes her enslavement happen; if he owned her, then she would have no choice but to stay with him and maybe learn to love him. The idea of “love” is important here because for Rufus, he would not only own Alice’s body but her soul and heart, too. His ownership of Alice would be absolute because he would have her devotion and loyalty. But Alice fights back: she hates Rufus and hell, she hates Dana too, for being “friends” with such a horrible man. But Dana also knows that she would cease to exist if Alice were to win against Rufus, so she would have to facilitate the enslavement of Alice for that purpose. Hell yes, it’s dark. Why would Rufus have a tethered connection to Dana of all people? Is it because Dana herself is willingly in a relationship with a white man and Dana’s direct ancestor was the product of the rape of a black woman by a white man? But Dana herself becomes enslaved to Rufus because for as long as Rufus is alive, he would always be able to call her back to his side, where someone like Dana would not be considered a real person, but property. Damn, son, that is some heavy shit.

This… is not a fun book. It’s a darkly fascinating read, especially since Octavia Butler is known for writing strong, independent heroines who live in challenging worlds determined to crush them. You cannot read this book and not be affected by it in some way. Butler in an interview herself said, “”I was trying to get people to feel slavery[...] I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people.” And… she’s right. This book is not just dark thematically, but it feels dark and cramped. You cannot sit back and get comfortable while reading this book. There will be a tightness in your chest, a feeling of unease and… dirtiness. You can almost smell the grease that the slaves use to cook their food in the outdoor kitchen or the salve rubbed into the wounds caused by an overseer’s eager whip. This is what Butler excels at: making sure that we, as readers, are emotionally affected by what we’re reading on the page and what we read is not something we can easily dismiss. And just like every single Octavia Butler book I’ve ever read, Kindred is beautiful, frightening, and dark, but I’ll be damned if I pick it up and read it again.

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