Most books fit in a spectrum within 1 of 3 categories:
- I couldn't finish it
- It was entertaining enough to finish
- I could not put the book down.
Kindred by Octavia Butler falls in category 3. I picked up the book around 6:30 or 7pm when I got home from work and with the exceptions of getting ready for bed and eating dinner, I didn't put the book down until about 1:30-2am when I had turned the last page. Needless to say I was completely sucked into the story and obsessively concerned with what happened to the characters.
Kindred follows the strange "adventure" of protagonist Dana who time travels from 1976 to 1819 (and subsequent 19th century years) unexpectedly. The time travel aspect solidifies it as science fiction fantasy, which is the norm for award wining science fiction author, Octavia Butler. However, with majority of the story taking place in the past, it reads like historical fiction more than science fiction (luckily I'm a fan of both!). It's a strange mix, but it works.
Generally when I think of time travel, I think of it the way I would think of a super power, and in my experience it's usually shown positively—a chance for someone to save the future—or as a bittersweet challenge such as in The Time Traveller's Wife. Dana, however, is a Black woman, born and raised in L.A., and living in 1976, when she is transported to a plantation in early 19th century Maryland. Can you imagine the horror?
Dana's time travel seems to be linked to a young white boy (whom she witnesses grow) named Rufus Weylin. Though Dana can't control when she appears in Rufus' time (or when she returns to 1976), she always appears just in time to save Rufus' life. Regardless of Dana's role in saving Rufus' life, each visit brings her closer and closer to death, leaving her afraid (even while safely in 1976) that she will never regain her freedom.
At the end of the book I was initially disappointed; there were many questions I had that were not answered and I didn't necessarily feel like "justice" was served. After a few minutes (literally, about about 5-10 minutes) I began to think the end was perfect—it's real. There was no neat tidy end to slavery and justice wasn't really served. People were bought and sold, and no one ever knew what became of the family or friends they lost.
Dana discovering Rufus is her distant relative and stumbling upon the relationship that led to their relationship is one of the most emotional points in the book. While most Blacks in America today have white ancestry dating to before it was legal for Black and White people to marry or have relationships, very few of us know the circumstances of those relationships. Was it always rape? Were there any consensual affairs?
Rufus claims to be in love with Dana's ancestor Alice, a free Black woman who lives not far from his plantation. Alice, however, is in love with a slave named Isaac, whom she marries. Rufus rapes Alice and is caught in the act by husband Isaac who subsequently beats Rufus silly. Dana appears just in time to break up the brawl, pleading for Isaac and Alice to run and for Rufus to lie about who attacked him. Alice and Isaac mistake Dana's concern for Rufus as "white-loving" but in truth, Dana wants to make sure Alice conceives Dana's distant relative so that she doesn't cease to exist. At the time, I thought this one time incident would be the conception of Dana's relative, Isaac and Alice would escape, and all would be well with that portion of the story.
Of course that's not what happened. Alice and Isaac are caught. The punishment for Isaac as a runaway slave is to lose his ears—something that would sound too gruesome to be believable if it weren't for the fact that my own great-uncle had his ear severed by angry White people in the late 1800s (and lived so long I was able to meet him to see the handiwork for myself). Alice's punishment for helping a runaway slave is to become a slave herself—not to mention the brutal beat down and dog attack she suffers as well.
Rufus buys Alice, has Isaac sent further South (we never learn what happens to Isaac), and sets her up in his own bed to recover. Poor Alice is nearly catatonic and has to piece the events together bit by bit, as Dana looks after her. Just when her body begins to heal, she is given the ultimatum that she will sleep with Rufus willingly or he will beat her until she complies. Giving in to the horror, Alice becomes Rufus' sex slave bearing him two children before attempting to run once again. Rufus not only beats her when she runs but takes her children away to make her believe they have been sold. This is the final straw for Alice who then takes her life.
As Dana comments to her husband, the women who lived through that era had something powerful within them, something Dana (nor I) believe that she (I) had in her (me). Her ancestor survived the initial rape, which is a hard task for any woman, but not unheard of. She attempted to run to freedom through the woods with no GPS or map and we aren't talking about a 2-3 mile journey, we're talking about crossing a whole state. She survived being mauled by a dog and beaten by men. She healed from mental trauma and coped with the loss of her husband (it's one thing for someone to die, it s quite different for them to be sold). She endured constant rape, miscarriages, and physical abuse. And in the end the thing that brought her to her knees was the "selling" of her children. Did one of my own ancestors suffer this as well? Were the women in my family just as strong? Am I that strong?
Kindred is a powerful book that will make you ask if you could have endured what the Black characters from 1819 endured, and if you are Black it will also remind you of the strength our ancestors had which is still running through our own veins.