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Kindred by Octavia Butler starts out in the year 1976 with the main character, Edana, known as “Dana,” a 26-year-old woman, in California, doing miscellaneous jobs after graduating from college. She hopes eventually to make her living as a short story writer or novelist.
An African-American from a conservative, religious family, Dana has just moved into an apartment with her boyfriend, Kevin, also a writer, and is unpacking their boxes of books when she feels dizzy and faint. She comes to in an unfamiliar place, outside, by a river where a boy is drowning. She saves him and comes to again in her apartment, wet and muddy, with Kevin bending over her, concerned. He tells her that she disappeared, but was only gone for a few seconds – not long enough for her to have had everything happen to her that she said. But he believes her, because the mud must have come from somewhere.
From that beginning, the story plunges Dana and Kevin, an interracial couple from liberal California, back and forth into the past of pre-Civil War Maryland, where free black people lived in fear of being thrown into slavery and racial equality was not even considered possible except in the minds of the most radical of thinkers.
Like Roots by Alex Haley, published in 1976, Kindred makes readers feel what it might have been like to be a slave in the early 1800s. Using the time travel aspect, however, the author also gets readers to imagine what it would be like to enter another period so different in time and place with only your modern sensibility and knowledge of history to get by on. Based on their skin color and gender, Dana and Kevin would automatically be looked upon and treated separately and differently.
Kindred isn’t really science fiction, even with the time travel. It’s more of an exploration into human nature and how much are we mere products of our times vs. inherently brave, just, or kind.
From the critical essay included with the Beacon Press edition that I read:a
Apart from its single fantastic premise of instantaneous movement through time and space, Kindred is consistently matter-of-fact in presentation and depends on the author’s reading of authentic slave narratives, her assimilation of data from research at libraries and historical societies, the maps she used to plot her characters’ movements, and her visits to the Talbot County, Maryland sites of the novel. Butler herself has repeatedly insisted that Kindred should be read as a “grim fantasy,” not as science fiction, since there is “absolutely no science in it.” She has also remarked that such generic labels are often more useful as marketing categories than as reading protocols. Like Kafka’s Metamorphosis or Anna Kavan’s Ice, Butler’s novel is an experiment that resists easy classification, and like other neo-slave narratives it blurs the usual boundaries of genre.
Kindred was well worth reading. It successfully made me imagine myself in a similar situation and think about how I would behave. It also made the long-ago past more vivid and real. I enjoy a mix of contemporary and historical, rather than a full-on historical novel, and I appreciated the author’s contrast of the feminist, open-minded perspective with the outlook of people living in the early nineteenth century.
Beacon Press, 19799780807083109
Disclosure: I purchased a NookBook edition of this book.