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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.”

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