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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Title: Kindred
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Reviewed Format: Trade paperback
Release Date: February 4, 2004
Pages: 287

Dana expected a quiet day in her new home to celebrate her 26th birthday by unpacking boxes with her husband. It isn’t very long at all before she becomes dizzy and quite suddenly disappears.  Instead of being surrounded by piles of books, she’s surrounded by nature and confronted with a choice: save a boy in the river from drowning or remain in shock and hope it’s all a dream.  The next few weeks of Dana’s life prove to be some of the worst.  As she’s repeatedly pulled backwards and forwards in time between 1976 California and an 1819 ante-bellum Southern plantation.  Her fate is tied with that of the plantation owner’s son, Rufus. Until she can figure out who he is, what he was meant to do, and why she continues to travel through time, Dana is in danger.  The ante-bellum South is no place for a black woman living in the 20th Century; to make matters worse, each time Dana returns, her visits are longer and the consequences more dire.  Will Dana become stuck in time or will she die before she has a chance to return home?

Kindred begins at the end.  An ominous and unexplained prologue lifted from the last chapters of the book left me feeling anxious and uneasy.  This was compounded by the narrative not resuming that conclusive thread until the epilogue.  Knowing what ultimately happens to Dana at that point didn’t spoil the suspense of wanting to know how she got there.  The journey is what made this book utterly compelling.  That disruption in what would otherwise be a linear narrative jarred me into understanding nothing would be as expected in this novel.  Everything, even time and the frame of the narrative itself, would be challenged.


Butler delves into the psyche of all of her characters, making them as sympathetic as they are disagreeable.  They’re vivid and rich--Butler’s grasp of this era’s history is best expressed through a studied development of the relationships and personalities of her Southern slaves and their masters.  All of them felt real; all of them could have leapt from the pages, pulled steadily through with the power of my imagination and Butler’s polished, convincing prose.  Dana may have a working understanding of slavery, but we have to remember: her knowledge is from education, not practical experience.  This makes her the best narrator for the story.  Hers is the personality most people can identify with.

The injustices of the ante-bellum South are just accepted, it’s a way of life--Butler shows the ease with which “people could be trained to accept slavery” (p.101) on one side; on the other, the gross negligence and presumptive nature adopted by slave owners and the populace at large.  Dana is as shocked by this as she is sobered.  She finds herself mystified at how easily she falls into her role in the past.  Butler made Dana’s experience personal.  No one bats an eye if a slave is beaten for being out at the wrong time of day--that’s just how it was, however wrong it is.  It’s frightening how quickly Dana assimilates, but it’s either survive or submit; the two are not the same.  I will admit: I was a bit put off with how fast Dana and Kevin took to their respective roles.  And they’re just that--roles.

Dana doesn’t fool herself into thinking she has no alternatives or hasn’t better experiences, but she also doesn’t take for granted how precious her life is, especially if she were to become injured in the past.  What made this more than play-acting was Dana’s inability to control when she would be pulled into the past and what life-threatening situation would bring her back.  She remained at the mercy of her ancestor, Rufus, just as his life remained in Dana’s hands.  Theirs was one of the most interesting relationships of the book.  As a relative of his, Dana had to acknowledge those roots and accept how entwined their existence with each other is.  To go back home, to 1976, is to go back to the relatively pampered life possible only through his existence.

So much of what Butler does is best appreciated by just reading this book.  I remain amazed at her talent, a talent that re-imagines and reclaims racial stereotypes.  At every turn, a new character or relationship is confronted in ways that alter the rhythm of complacency.  The narrative is bold and thematic, pulling from unlikely sources to build a new perspective both complex and difficult to swallow.  She toys with several dichotomies including (but not limited to) master and slave; husband and wife.  The politics of race become an even more frightening reality for Dana and her husband, Kevin (a Caucasian).  To contend with an already heavy narrative, Butler examines gender politics--not only what it means to be black or white, but to be male and female while having racial distinction.

I can’t talk about this novel enough, nor do I feel I am ever going to articulate well what I want to say about Kindred.  The last line is powerful; the metaphor of Dana and her missing arm, even more so.  It brings up questions of reality and identity.  If a piece of Dana will literally always be in the past, what does that say as it transcends the narrative of any of us who get “caught up” in our own past?  Are we so preoccupied with today that it takes an experience as jarring as Dana’s to render us forever changed?  Or does attempting to understand the past have the potential to draw us in and empathize so deeply?  I would recommend this book to anyone and think if more people haven’t already read it, they should.  As it stands, I already feel I need to re-read it, or study it to really grasp everything I might have missed the first time.

How many Jawas recommend this book?



10 comments:

calico-reaction said...

So glad you finally got to read this. I added your review to my list, and feel free to join in the discussion there too, even though it's a month past. :)

Erika said...

@calico-reaction: Me, too! Better late than never, right? Thank you for adding the review! I'll be around to look at the book club post later tonight. :)

Thuy said...

I requested this book from the library because of you :)

Erika said...

@Thuy: Yay! You've helped to make my day. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! :)

TJ said...

I loved this book. It made me spaz out horribly, unable to articulate why. Not only was it a good story, it's also fantastically entertaining.

I really love the end metaphor. I didn't get it immediately, but when I did I was just agog, because it was so beautiful and disturbing.

Erika said...

@TJ: Yes! One thing I really appreciated, was having Dana go back wearing pants. It's one of those little things we take for granted now that, while obvious, isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind when we think of how a contemporary character would appear different in the past. I was so concerned over the issues, I felt a bit silly that I hadn't thought of something so simple. :)

Jo said...

I've had this on my TBR list, and after reading this, it's moving to the top of the stack!

And - I've given you awards! here

Erika said...

@Jo: You won't regret it--this is quite an amazing book.

And you're so sweet! Thank you. I'll head on over right away to see them. :)

Lily Child said...

Wow. Awesome review Erika! Your review alone leaves me in awe! I have GOT to read this one!!!

Erika said...

@Lily Child: Thank you! You should definitely read this. It's also short enough that you can get absorbed and read it in a day or two. :)

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