Apr 21 2009 2:22pm

Time travel and slavery: Octavia Butler’s Kindred

The immediate effect of reading Octavia Butler’s Kindred is to make every other time travel book in the world look as if it’s wimping out. The Black Death in Doomsday Book? Wandering about your own life naked in Time Traveller’s Wife? Pikers. Only Days of Cain and The Devil’s Arithmetic can possibly compete. In Kindred, Dana finds herself repeatedly going back from her own happy life in Los Angeles in 1976 to a plantation in Maryland in 1815. And she’s black, a fact given away by every cover and blurb I’ve ever seen about the book but actually cleverly concealed by the text for quite a time, so that if you’d managed to read it with nothing between you and the words it would be something you’d be worried about until it is confirmed.

In 1815, without papers, a black woman is automatically assumed to be a slave, and treated as a slave.

This is a brilliant book, utterly absorbing, very well written, and deeply distressing. It’s very hard to read, not because it’s not good but because it’s so good. By wrenching a sheltered modern character like Dana back to the time of slavery you get to see it all fresh, as if it’s happening to you. You don’t get the acceptance of characters who are used to it, though we see plenty of them and their ways of coping, through Dana’s eyes. There’s no getting away from the vivid reality of the patrollers, the whip, the woman whose children are sold away. Horrible things happen to Dana, and yet she is the lucky one, she has 1976 to go back to, everyone else has to just keep on living there going forward one day at a time.

This is fantasy time travel, not science-fictional. There’s no time machine, no escape mechanism, very little recovery time. Dana figures out that she’s being pulled through time by Rufus, who when she first meets him is just a little boy, but she learns that he is her ancestor and that she’s going through time to save his life. But there’s no real explanation, we all have ancestors, and that doesn’t happen to everyone. I think the book is stronger for not trying to explain, for letting that be axiomatic. Once it is accepted that Rufus is calling her through time, the other things, the rate at which time passes in 1815 as against 1976, the things that make Dana transfer between them, the link, all work science-fictionally with precise reliable extrapolation.

Most genre stories about time travel are about people who change things. But we’re a long way from Martin Padway here. Dana doesn’t even try. She has an unlimited ability to bring things she can hold from 1976, aspirins and antiseptic and a book on slavery that gets burned, and her husband Kevin, who gets stuck in the past for five years and brutalised by it. Kevin doesn’t try to change the past either, and with less excuse, as he doesn’t have the inherent disadvantage of being mistaken for a slave. Kevin acts as a safe house for escaping slaves, but that’s something people of that time did. He doesn’t try to invent penicillin or even railroads. But this is a thought after the book—the reality of the book is sufficiently compelling that you don’t question it while you’re in it. The details of the early nineteenth century plantation are so well researched they feel unquestionably real, in all their awful immediacy.

I think Butler idealises 1976 quite a bit, to make it a better contrast for 1815. The thing that really made me notice this was Dana’s inability to code-switch. She acts, in 1815, as if she’s never met anyone before who has a problem with black people talking in formal English, which surprised me. She’s led a fairly sheltered life, and she’s married to a white man,  but you’d think that doing the kind of temp jobs she does to make a living while she writes she’d have run into more kinds of prejudice than are mentioned. On this reading, I wondered if Butler had deliberately made Dana a kind of Hari Kumar, a character who is white in all but appearance who is then suddenly forced to confront the reality of being judged by that appearance and forced into a very unwelcome box by it. If that was Butler’s choice—and the concealment of Dana’s skin color for the first thirty pages of the book seems to be another piece of evidence for this—I wonder if she might have done it to make it an easier identification for white readers, not to stir up present day issues but to get right to what she wanted to talk about.

1. bookworm
I have read this book, and also like it very much.

Seems to me that the author also addressed the additional differences of being an enslaved woman in that time.
2. firkin
this was the first of Butler's work i ever read, and it's still my favorite. i deeply appreciate how complex the moral and affectional relationships are and how the book makes you think about american history.

i can't comment on how white readers might have received it at the time though i'm interested by the idea that Butler may have consciously wanted readers fully engaged in the story before clarifying that Dana is black. i wonder if there was ever an edition that didn't make this clear on the cover?

however, and it's been a few years since i've read Kindred, but, i don't find the "white in all but appearance" thing convincing. it's totally plausible to me that Dana is middle-class and bookish enough (particularly in a 1976 idealized-for-dramatic-effect) to react as described in the book -- that doesn't make her "not really black." plenty of black people speak standard american english as their first or only language, and encountering racism in her own life in california would really be nothing that could prepare her for 1815 in the south, language-wise or otherwise.
3. MoreBooksForMe
I read this book for an African American literature class in college. I absoultly loved it. It was by far the best I read that semester. As a white male I thought it would be tough to relate to the main character, but it was really easy. It is well written and you find yourself feeling all the emotions that Dana and Kevin are. I like the fact that there was no time travel machine and that they didn't try to change history. Reading it you really don't notice. I would reccomend this to anyone who likes a good book.
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
make every other time travel book in the world look as if it’s wimping out


*carefully puts on list for when feeling very robust*
Stef Maruch
5. firecat
I posted about Kindred on my LJ here. As for idealizing 1976, I wrote: Perhaps Butler wanted to focus in part on the improvement in race relations between then (pre-abolition) and now. Perhaps she believed interracial relationship would no longer have difficult power dynamics due to racism in society.

There are also notes of hope. Several of the characters who have cross-racial interactions gradually move toward seeing at least some people of the other race as human—that is, similar enough to themselves to attempt communication. I imagine that Butler is saying there is a human urge to see other people as equal humans, and that if there’s enough interaction between people who start out as Other to each other, eventually Similar will start to infiltrate. But there are cultural and historical and personal reasons why, in a slave-owning society, no one on either side can fully replace Other with Similar.
Jason Erik Lundberg
6. jelundberg
Kindred is hand-down one of my favorite novels. Brutal and honest and it never feels anything but real, even amongst the fantastical trope. The fact that not only can't Dana change anything about the past, but that she *mustn't* or it may endanger her very existence, lends a powerful tension to the plot. As much as I kept wanting her to take Rufus upside the head with a big shovel, I knew that she couldn't, which strengthens my identification and empathy with her character.

Fans of The Time Traveler's Wife absolutely should seek out this brilliant work.
Andrea Leistra
7. aleistra
I don't think Butler was deliberately concealing Dana's race; I think she was avoiding going out of her way to reveal it (granted, a subtle difference). Giving physical description of the narrator in a first-person book is always tricky, and while I haven't read the book for a while, Dana's first trip back in time is *just* short enough for her not to be addressed by racial slurs.

Butler knew full well that readers are likely to assume characters are white until demonstrated otherwise, of course, and exploited that, but I don't think there was the "ha ha, fooled you!" intent, but rather the intent to make the reader realize they'd been making unwarranted assumptions.
Heather Johnson
8. HeatherJ
I put this book on my TBR list back when this post first went up. It's taken me a year, but I finally did listen to the audio version. You are right, this is an amazing book! More people should definitely be reading it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. (If you want to check out my brief review you can find it here.)
9. Santana
Loved, Loved, Loved this book. Read it in Highschool and searched for it online, until I just happened to remember the name! I will be buying this book to read again and again. I still remember how intense it was.
10. andreay
old post bu had to comment: it seemed to me that butler was more keeping kevin's race unclear, rather than dana's. supposedly, butler has said she "gave that husband to complicate her life.”
11. Girl Detective
This is an old post, but my book group is discussing this today and I've been reading up on it. What strikes me is that again and again it's referred to as tough, difficult, grim, painful, etc.

Yet I found the book stunning, transporting, amazing, hard to put down, and many more positive adjectives.

Why do challenging books get labelled difficult or painful, and thus alienate readers before they begin? Beloved is similarly discussed in these terms and I've even heard readers say they were "afraid" of these books. Is this equally true of white/male authored books, like Cormac McCarthy's The Road? Do the associations with pain and fear put off all readers, or mainly white ones?

Complicated. Interesting. Just like the book. READ IT!
12. CKB
I think you're a bit harsh on Kevin, who after a disturbing flirtation with moral relatvisim, really straightened himself out in the five years he spent alone in the 19th century. He didn't just provide a safehouse to runaways; he describes himself as working pretty actively to get slaves to safety--grew that beard to disguise himself from a lynch mob. As to not inventing railroads--well, shame on you for reading too many issues of Analog magazine, honestly. Kevin was a novelist from 1976. He knew about as much about building railroads as you or I do. The best he could ever hope to do is make some good investments as new technologies came along.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment