Kindred, Octavia Butler (1979)
Review by Debbie Moorhouse
Published in 1979, Octavia Butler’s Kindred is one of her few stand-alone novels. Narrated in the first person, it tells the story of Dana Franklin, a black woman from 1976 who is repeatedly transported to the South of the USA in the nineteenth century, usually without, but once with, her white husband Kevin.
Dana’s knowledge of the history of slavery in the USA, which includes her own family’s history, enables her to adapt to being dragged through time to rescue her ancestors, Rufus Weylin and Alice Jackson, from injury, illness and death. Rufus is the son of a slaveowner, and Alice a free black woman who is later enslaved. One of Dana’s rescues of Rufus is saving him from the wrath of Isaac, Alice’s husband, who has caught the young white man attempting to rape Alice. Once Isaac is caught, mutilated, and sold away, Rufus is able to take Alice to his bed with impunity.
Kindred doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of slavery, yet throughout it didn’t feel as if Dana was nearly as frightened as she ought to be. It’s as if something is lacking at the heart of the story. Butler does a much better job in Dawn of communicating the character’s fears, helplessness and distress. Perhaps Dana’s confidence is the result of detachment, an inability to believe that this world could kill her without a thought, yet that doesn’t come across, either. So although this is a well-told and thoughtful story, it lacks the visceral responses of a modern, free woman with rights who suddenly becomes a possession, a piece of property, something to be punished, mutilated, even killed, at will.
What is handled well is the relationship between Dana and Rufus, particularly. She tries to counterbalance the influences of his society and family, to make him see that raping Alice is wrong, that selling slaves away from their families is wrong. Yet she’s never able to overcome his own sense of rightness, of his place in a society in which nothing he does to slaves can be wrong – unless it’s teaching them to read and write, or tolerating their own choices of sexual partners. He doesn’t see himself as cruel or unreasonable; this is just how things are. And eventually he comes to believe that his rights over black people extend even to Dana, despite her having frequently warned him that alienating her will lead to his death.
The ambivalence of many of the relationships in this book are reminiscent of those in Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, and reflect how adaptive human behaviour is, especially when that human is a woman trying to protect herself, and perhaps her children. Dana herself adopts the behaviours and mannerisms of a slave, and it takes Alice to call her on it, to remind her of who she used to be.
By the end of the book, both Alice and Dana have freed themselves in the only ways open to them, their methods perhaps reflecting the gap of over a hundred years between their attitudes and beliefs.
A strong book, well worth reading, and one that carries utter conviction in its characters and its events.