Dana and Kevin Franklin are a young married couple, both writers, who have finally started making enough money from their writing to support themselves. They buy a new house in a small suburb of Los Angeles in 1976 but before they can settle in and finish unpacking, Dana starts feeling nauseated and dizzy and then disappears completely from her home, reappearing on the banks of a river in an unfamiliar place where she notices that a small boy is drowning. The boy is Rufus Weylin and he is her great grandfather many times removed.
After Dana saves Rufus’ life she is returned to her home in California where her husband is skeptical of her experiences even though he cannot explain how she disappeared right in front of his eyes. Over the next days and weeks Dana and Kevin’s lives undertake a strange turn since Dana never knows when she is going to disappear into where she finds out is early 19th century Baltimore, a place fraught with danger for her because she is a black woman and Baltimore, at the time of course, is a slave state.
Dana’s comings and goings in 1819 Maryland seem to be predicated on saving the life of her young ancestor, Rufus Weylin, who is prone to getting into life threatening scrapes. He has to live to father a child named Hagar who is the forerunner of Dana’s branch of the family. When he is young, Dana has hopes that she will be able to help shape Rufus’ personality thereby helping the slaves on the Weylin plantation. But despite her best efforts to shape Rufus into a “humane” plantation & slave owner, Rufus is still a white man of his time with considerable power over the lives of other people. Rufus enjoys Dana’s company and counsel, and even loves her (and others much to their detriment) after a fashion, but he is also angry, calculating, capricious, vindictive and dangerous. He and Dana have a tenuous relationship based on their mutual understanding of the threat that each poses to the other (she can always refuse to save him and let him die, and he can subject her to any number of the more severe aspects of slavery), but Rufus is used to having his way all the time. How much can Dana compromise and still retain her own freedom?
Kindred is a compelling read and each time I have picked it up I have not been able to put it down in spite of knowing the way that the story ends. It’s one of those books where each time I read it I come away from it with more than when I read it the first time around. I marvel at Octavia Butler’s genius in being able to weave so many threads together to create a story which is both complex and disturbing on so many levels.
Unless you are living through a particular situation or time period, or are in someone else’s shoes, it’s very hard to judge people and the culture of their times. I also feel like it’s even hard to judge things in our own times, but that’s another story. There are some things in life that are universally wrong, and slavery and the the system that it spawned is definitely in that category, but when Dana goes back she is constantly trying to navigate a system of wrongs to ensure that her family survives, and to ensure her own personal freedom and safety. She is trying to preserve her love for her husband Kevin, which turns out to be no easy task considering he is a white man, and though he vehemently believes that slavery is wrong and more sympathetic than the average white male in 1819, he has a very different experience than she does, and doesn’t experience slavery as personally as she can.
The characters and their relationships to one another are super complex and they parallel each other all over the place, which I noticed before but not as strongly as when I read it this time around. Kevin and Dana love each other and are in a relationship, something that is incomprehensible in 1819, but still it’s the kind of relationship that Rufus would have probably liked to have had with Alice, a free born black woman whose enslavement is his fault, and whom he will he will take by force to have create the child that is Dana’s ancestor. Dana is always in the untenable situation of wanting something that will ensure her family line though it comes at a high cost to someone whom she has grown to love and genuinely wants to have her own autonomy.
Butler is able to weave all of the details of plantation life into the narrative from the cookhouse, and the whippings and punishments of slaves, to the plantation celebrations and the philosophy of holding the slaves- and it’s such a personal book! All of the characters have stories, and you get to see so many of them play out. But even better she illustrates all the contradictions, horrors and inhumanity of owning other people. This isn’t a black and white book, but gray all over the place. Should Dana do things that will risk her life and her return to 1976 in order to do good in 1819? What’s the greatest cost to herself that she will bear and how much of her “1976” self will she compromise in order to fit in and be safe in 1819? There are so many questions and not enough clear answers, and definitely not enough answers which made me happy as I was reading this. Dana is the perfect guide and proverbial “walk in another’s shoes” because she is the modern reader (Kevin also, to a lesser extent and from a different perspective) stuck in what’s for her a hellish time in history and struggling to navigate and execute her modern ideas/self among the charm and barbarity of another time.
Seriously, in 1100 words, I have not even scratched the surface of just how complex, interesting, brilliant and well done this book is. You simply have to read it (and when you do that you have to e-mail me so we can really “talk” about it). It’s classified as science fiction, but besides the time travel (beyond the mere basics of how it works, it’s not really concentrated upon) nothing is really sci-fi about it. The absurdity and horror of slavery should have been some awful science fiction alternate universe, but alas, that part was actually real.