Book Reviews

Kindred by Octavia Butler — rocked by the past

Cover of Kindred by Octavia E Butler,  a novel which uses time travel to explore the horrors of slavery

Reading Kindred has confirmed that I’m unlikely to ever be a fan of novels that involve time travel. It’s a challenge to be fully engaged in a narrative when the rational/realist side of my brain questions the whole idea that humans can be transported to other periods in time.

In Octavia Butler’s novel the device is used to explore complex themes about slavery and how the past influences and shapes the present. Could she have written about the same theme without the time slip element? Probably. Would it have had the same impact? For me, yes I think it would, though I suspect other readers would disagree.

Kindred tells the story of Dana, a black woman who lives in California in 1976 with her white husband Kevin. In a bizarre turn of events she is catapulted to a plantation in Maryland in 1815 where she witnesses the horrors of slavery and learns about the history of her own family.

Dana is not just a witness however, but an active participant in the lives of the plantation owners and their slaves. Her first “visit” to the plantation sees her rescue a small white child she discovers floating unconscious in a river. Subsequently she comes to understand that Rufus, the son of the plantation owner, is her great-great-great-grandfather and it’s her task to keep him safe.

Whenever Rufus is in danger, Dana is summoned to his aid. Each time she returns she spends longer on the plantation and gets more embroiled in the conditions of the slaves and her ancestor’s behaviour towards the people he “owns”.

Time passed. Kevin and I became more a part of the household, familiar, accepted, accepting. That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatise.

So here’s my first issue with Kindred— each time Dana returns, she finds that Rufus has aged. He becomes a man and the inheritor of the plantation before the book is over. Yet Dana’s age remains the same. You’d expect this oddity would be a matter of consternation on the plantation but they seem to just accept the fact, and also her repeated absences; in one case she disappears for five years.

Rufus is just as strangely accepting of Dana’s explanation that she is from his future. I think if someone turned up at my home claiming to come from another century I’d have a lot more questions than he does.

Another of my issues concerned Dana’s role as a kind of guardian angel for Rufus. Despite the many threats to his life, we know he will survive because otherwise Dana would not exist. So it removes the tension whenever we learn of threats to Rufus’ life.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical here and should have worried less about the details and focused more on the moral dilemma that Rufus’ existence poses for Dana. She rationalises that if she lets him die she would be doing a great service to those enslaved on the plantation. If he lives, there is a chance she can get him to become a better man and a more humane master.

Complicating the matter is the question of her own safety. The more she intervenes with the way of life in the South, the more she puts her self in danger. Often her attempts to bring about a change mean that she returns to her own world, beaten and scarred. She risks not only “losing my place here in my own time.” but also losing Kevin who has also been dragged into the past with her.

By the end of the novel we learn how far she is willing to go to safeguard her own future and that of her husband.

I can see why Kindred so frequently appears in reading programmes at schools and universities. It offers plenty of material for discussion about master-slave power dynamics; familial relationships (hence the title) freedom of choice. I’m glad I read it because it’s been on my radar for many years but I won’t be putting it on my favourite books of the year list.

Favourite quote

“That’s history. It happened whether it offends you or not. Quite a bit of it offends me, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

11 thoughts on “Kindred by Octavia Butler — rocked by the past

  • For Some reason, though I don’t much like SF or fantasy, I do enjoy time travel. Perhaps because I’d love to be able to Visit the future and see what happens. I’m pretty good at suspending disbelief in stations like this. I’ve had this on my radar for a long time.

    BTW, I love that favourite quote you’ve shared.

  • I think I’d find that timeslip too much of a distraction from the novel’s themes. I wonder why she felt the need to use that device. Interesting comment from wadholloway, though.

  • Probably one of my favourite assessments of Kindred (and I can’t remember who said it now) is that it makes all other time travel novels look cowardly. I think the way to read it is definitely to just accept that this bizarre thing is happening—Butler never attempts to rationalise it or even explain the mechanism behind it—but that isn’t the way a lot of people read! I don’t know if you’ve read any of her other work, but she’s much more explanatory in, i.e., Parable of the Sower, or Dawn, or even Fledgling, so those might be worth a punt if you’re still interested in her.

    • Thanks Elle for that insight. I’d have to work hard to accept the bizarreness of time travel at face value

  • I’ve not read Butler but I know she’s highly regarded – my Eldest Child, for example, has read and loved many of her books. But I don’t know if she would be for me, although this does sound like a powerful read.

    • I think it was the status of the book and the author that made me believe I’d be reading something truly remarkable. The power was lessened though just because I couldn’t get my head around the time slip stuff

  • tracybham

    For some reason I have never had any interest in Octavia Butler’s books, but I do like time travel books. There are many many variations of that subgenre and I usually like them all, no matter how unrealistic. I was glad to read this review because I had no idea what this book was about. Now, if I ever decide to read it, I will go into it with some idea of what is to come.

    TracyK at Bitter Tea and Mystery

    • That was one of the questions I asked when we discussed the novel in the book club – was it typical of time travel novels – but didn;t get a clear answer. Thanks for enlightening me

  • Time travel? Just … no. But perhaps, especially in view of the other comments I should give this one a go. When I’m feeling strong enough, maybe.

  • wadholloway

    I read it a couple of years ago and loved it. SF readers I think get used to time travel as a device and accept its illogicalities. As a discussion of slavery it is imo brilliant.

  • I’m inclined to agree with you in terms of the irrational nature of the time travelling which initially bothered me as much as it bothers you. Though not a perfect novel it does have worth, I think, which I tried to bring out in my review:

    Should we have any quibbles about the mechanics of Dana’s time-travelling to rescue a past ancestor from death? I don’t think so: it’s enough that it happened. To fathom how it happened is as pointless as Dana trying, when faced with injury and infection, to explain to the Weylins the notion of microbes or the need for hygiene without her being accused of witchcraft. As she says to Kevin, “If we told anyone else about this, anyone at all, they wouldn’t think we were so sane.” But what matters is the essential truth of Butler’s story: it lays bare a history that needs to be visited and examined for us all, as Kevin speculates, “To try to understand.”


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