Book Review: Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Kindred, by Octavia Butler. Beacon Press. 1979.

Recent news FX is planning on developing a series based on Ms. Butler’s book inspired my interest. I’ve never read anything she penned prior to reading this book, no short story, article, or any other book. I’ve known of her for years; anyone who has read science fiction should recognize her name. Why have I not read her? Good question. I think it was becomes she incorporates social themes and conflicts in her science fiction and while I those aspects don’t necessarily turn me away, I tend to enjoy more hard science fiction. I’m also trying to grow as a reader and realize I need to branch out and away from my science fiction comfort zone.

To be completely honest, Kindred was the hardest book I may have ever read. The book could be read in an afternoon. At 264 pages, the length is not especially formidable. What is formidable is the subject matter: slavery. In particular, the chattel slavery of blacks during the Antebellum period of the U.S. Old South. This book is not the sweet story telling of “Gone With the Wind.” No, Octavia is going to make you feel slavery in many of its ugly and disgusting and insidious forms.

Edana Franklin is married to a white man in Los Angeles, California. Together, “Dana” and Kevin live in small apartment and try to make a life together in 1976 L. A., he is a writer and she is a temp who wants to be a writer. Dana and Kevin face racism, even in liberal L.A. as neither of their families are especially happy Dana married a white man and Kevin married a black woman. But, Dana and Kevin don’t really give their families much mind. Let’s also keep this fact in mind; the case of Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court case which determined banning interracial marriage was contrary to the Equal Rights and Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment is only 9 years old in 1976.

One afternoon while helping Kevin organize books in a room they have devoted to their collection of books, Dana becomes fantastically dizzy and disappears right before Kevin’s eyes. She awakes beside a river, in a crouch, confused, befuddled, and hearing the cries of a young boy. The cries of the boy distract her from her confusion, and she jumps into a small river to rescue a boy trapped in a current. After hauling him to the bank, she performs CPR and revives him in front of his hysterical mother. Thinking she should be congratulated and thanked, she is blamed for the boy’s near-death experience and then has a primitive looking rifle shoved in her face by the boy’s father. Believing she is about to be killed, Dana passes out from the experience and awakes back in her apartment, Kevin freaking out.

Over the course of the book, we learn Dana has a connection with the boy. Rufus, from an early age through adulthood, has a habit of getting himself into life-threatening situations. Each situation yanks Dana through time and space to Talbot County, Maryland, to a plantation to Rufus’ rescue. As a black woman in 1815 Maryland, Dana finds herself with rights, no privileges, living a life at the mercy of the master of the slave plantation and Rufus’ hard-case father, Thomas, and his petty, vindictive mother, Margaret. Dana finds herself subject to the same rules and life of a young black woman, a slave, in the Antebellum South. Reading is not allowed, writing not allowed, all difference is given to every white person no matter the age or request. Punishment is meted out with whips, physical violence, and rape. Dana’s only escape is for her to face a life-threatening event; only then is she yanked back to the present, however all of her wounds persist.

Kevin eventually becomes caught in Dana’s Antebellum timeline, allowing them to use the rules of slave ownership to protect Dana for as much as they can. Dana is seen as Kevin’s property; marriage between races isn’t not allowed and is not simply frowned upon but seen as not Christian. Kevin, as a white man, is able to move around with near-impunity. Dana, on the other hand, is barely able to live even while operating under Kevin’s auspices. Kevin is completely not-OK with anything about this situation. Given the circumstances both Kevin and Dana realize that if they are to survive long enough to figure out why this time travel is happening to Dana, they must adapt and learn to live among masters and slaves.

Octavia Butler read many slave writings while writing her novel. Kindred, while a time-travel story, is really the fictionalization of many 1st person slave narratives. Rather than tell the story of one particular slave, Octavia has created a character in Dana who represents an amalgam of many slaves and their stories. Other characters in Kindred also represent a combination of traits of real-life people, some slaves, some plantation whites. Kevin represents a depiction of some 20th century views of the horrific violence perpetrated on blacks during slavery. I say “some;” Kevin is aghast at the daily trials and crimes perpetrated on slaves, men, woman, and children. Even as I write this review, though, on March 17th, 2021, the United States continues to deal with residual barbaric views of some whites who long for the days of the Confederacy, who support Trump and his White Nationalist and White Supremacist garbage. While the South will never, ever rise again, some whites continue to give the South CPR.

My particular copy of Kindred has an essay which can be used as a teacher’s guide. The publisher, BeaconPress, offers a study guide which is designed to meet some Common Core literacy standards. I will warn any reader, while there is no scenes of rape, rape clearly happens, and there are brief scenes of sexual assault. The N-word is liberally scattered throughout the story. And, then the whips and torture. I would offer this: while it might be tempting to shield junior and senior high school students from these images, these terrible circumstances happened to people younger than any high school student. Children taken from parents and sold into slavery. Children who watched their mothers and fathers whipped, tortured, and beaten. Children who watched their mother die in childbirth, and their fathers ripped away and sold. I can hear some parents: “How dare you expose my child to this brutality!” Yeah, well, how about the children who actually lived during this time period and actually witnessed these actions. There is some corollary to the Jewish concentration camps; children watching their parents led off to ovens, chambers, or to their deaths at a pit. Or parents watching their children hustled onto trains by Nazis. The essayist makes a comment about how the Nazis tried to do in a decade what the Confederacy and the United States tried to do over a hundred or more years.

Make no mistake; in my judgment, the United States has never settled the issue of slavery and the Confederacy. Not like Germany did. We never stared ourselves in the face and accepted our racism and the sins of slavery like post-war Germany did with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We simply swept it under the rug, tried to move on. And, here we are, still fighting the same bullshit social conflicts we should have settled decades ago, and if the GOP would have their way, we would continue to sweep social issues aside and never face them head-on. This is tantamount to a spouse making excuses for abuse they suffer at the hands of their significant other, thinking if enough time goes by, life will be better and the issues will just dissolve and go away. The only way that method works is if one spouse dies. Otherwise, the toxicity continues, and future generations still carry it along.

I personally believe this book should be read by everyone, black, white, Hispanic, young, old. The topics and themes are specifically made to encourage discussion. Yes, the book is not comfortable to read; yet it is far easier to read than if a black woman had been caught reading in Talbot County, Maryland, in 1815.

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