Book Review: Kindred
Time travelling isn't always as fun as it sounds, especially if you happen to be a black woman who keeps getting pulled back to the time her ancestors were slaves deep in the American South.
So begins Kindred.
I love learning history. At school we covered Australian history, I signed up for history electives where a small number of other nerdy minded students learnt about the two world wars and studied the French and Russian Revolution in Year 12, scoring the highest score in a SOSE subject from my year level. American History was not a priority. Maybe the teachers assumed we would just absorb American history through pop culture since the majority of our tv shows and books are from the USA. They were not wrong.
It should be no surprise then that one of my favourite genres is Historical Fiction. Even in a fictional world, you can pick up on so much history and it is often very well researched. Another favourite genre of mine is Fantasy. What could happen if we added a fantastical element into the world and explored how humans react to x if y?
Kindred hits both of my favourites, historical fiction and fantasy. It has been widely debated whether Kindred is science fiction or fantasy and I think both arguments for and against for both genres have merit. Yes, it has time travel. The time travel isn’t explained as much as you may expect for a science fiction novel. For a fantasy? It works quite well. A woman in her mid-twenties is sent back in time, back to the American South in a time of slavery where the colour of her skin does not help the situation. Dana, the main character is a black woman, married to a white man.
Dana is unpacking her books in her new apartment when she is suddenly and unexpectedly yanked back into the past, saving a white child drowning in the river. In doing so, she is rewarded with a gun in the face from his parents on the river bank. She is then sent back to her own time, soaking wet and not sure what just happened. Until it happens again.
Dana figures out that her ancestors are involved in the past she unwillingly is made to visit, and if she doesn’t save the son of the white landowner, Rufus, time and time again, she may cease to exist. This leads to a complicated relationship to say the least with Rufus, his father, and the slaves that live on the plantation. Dana is a black, educated woman and this puts her on the outer, with not only the men, with not only the whites but the slaves as well.
Interestingly, while not much time passes in her current timeline, in the past, she may stay there for months or years. Sometimes her husband is with her, once he doesn’t make it back to the future with her. Dana learns what she must do to survive and to what extent she can endure torture and injustice, just to survive, just to make it until she can get the chance to return to her present, for once and for all.
This novel explores what Kindred actually means, what humans can endure, what they shouldn’t have had to endure at the hands of other humans, and shows parallels with the world today, how quickly we can forget history and the daily sacrifices that were made, just because someone looked different to someone else.
The daily life of the plantation is a harsh place to live, Octavia E Butler does not shy away from the violence, the rape, the whippings, the tearing apart of families as children are sold and sent away from their families, with the family most likely to never see each other again. It can be so easy to be complacent today, to read the book reviews on Kindred that say that the reader would have gone back to the past and made a bigger difference than what Dana did, but would they have been able to before being whipped to death? Before being raped? Before sacrificing the lives of all the other slaves, they may have befriended? All of Dana’s actions when she is in the past have consequences that she needs to weigh up, not only to protect those on the plantation that have shared their few belongings and accepted her as a part of their family but with the extra knowledge that if she changes things too much, she may mess with the future with a negative way.
There are so many different angles, so many different complexities to explore with a book such as Kindred, so I urge you all to just give it a go. It was written in 1979 but it could have been written today. Octavia’s writing appealed to me, her characters really stuck with me, especially Dana and Alice and I was constantly pausing to think, to feel and to be so damn grateful in the ways that the world has changed but wanting to weep for the ways that the world still hasn’t quite caught up to where it should be, in terms of racism, in terms of sexism, in terms of not repeating history.
I read Kindred during the 24in48 readathon as my last pick. It was a tough read but an important one with a strong voice for the main character and a plot that made me keep turning the pages so I could find out what happened next.
Have you read Kindred? Do you recommend any others by Octavia E. Butler? I would love to know your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below.