Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
CN for entire review: Racism, Rape, Slavery
Best for: Really anyone. I don’t think you need to be into graphic novels or science fiction to enjoy this work.
In a nutshell: Somehow Dana — a young Black woman living with her white husband in 1976 — ends up being transported back to the mid-1800s when a young son of a slave master fears death. Without warning, she is then transported back to 1776. This cycle continues, and times including her husband.
Line that sticks with me: “I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.” (p 89)
Why I chose it: My husband received this as a gift this year and thought I would also enjoy it.
Review: This was an intense read, possibly made more intense by the portrayal of the images associated with the it. In a traditional novel, we imagine the scenes. And its possible what we imagine is more dramatic than, say, what might end up in a film adaptation. But with this graphic novel format, the images showing the whippings, the attempted rapes, the horror, are all quite real.
Below are spoilers, as they were hard to avoid in the areas I’m most interested in exploring.
Dana’s relationship with Rufus — the boy, then teen, then man who she is connected to — is complicated. Saving his life often means saving her own, but keeping him alive may mean other things, like the continued mistreatment of other humans. Yet if she kills him before he issues free papers for the slaves, all she does is risk those slaves being sold to yet another white person. Dana has some sympathy for Rufus at time, and the reader can sometimes see that perhaps there is a grain of humanity in him, but then he refuses to embrace that grain and continues along the path his dead slave-owning father led him down.
Her relationship to the slaves on the plantation is also complicated. She doesn’t speak like them, she can read and write, and she gets some preferential treatment that keeps her from the harder labor in the fields. But she still gets whipped, and has her life threated. She has to ‘remember her place’ and try to figure out how to help the slaves without putting their lives — or her own — at risk.
I’ve don’t believe I’ve finished any of Ms. Butler’s books before. I believe I started one for a book club but didn’t connect. This one, however, I couldn’t put down. The science fiction is there for sure, but it isn’t the main focus. Yes, it’s about woman who gets pulled into the past without control, and then returned seemingly beyond her control. Time passes in the past but when she returns, minutes or hours have passed in the present day. We don’t know how the mechanic works, and we never find out (we do learn the why, sort of). And yes, there is a level of tension in terms of when will she get pulled back next, and can she return before she is hurt badly. But it isn’t the main point.
The main point is, as I see it, survival. How does one survive in this time and place — Maryland, during the slavery era of the U.S. — when one has no experience of it? And how does one survive when one does? Is there any complexity to slaveholders, or are they all 100% evil? Does “product of their time” mean anything? Is it an excuse, or simply an explanation? How does a slave survive? How does a free Black person survive? How does anyone thrive?
I do think we probably lose a few things in the adaptation to graphic novel, which is what kept me from giving this four stars. Regardless, I’m definitely glad that I read this, and I’ll be thinking on it for awhile.
Also — Cannonball!