Aug 10, 2010

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred opens in California in 1976, with a couple of struggling writers, Dana and Kevin, moving into a new apartment in Los Angeles. Dana is in the middle of reshelving her books when she begins to feel dizzy. When she regains consciousness, she’s in an unknown place, and there’s a river in front of her in which a red-haired child seems to be drowning. Dana saves the child, but to her astonishment the only thanks she gets is having the boy’s mother attack her and his father point a gun at her. The latter happens mere instances before she begins to feel dizzy again, and she wakes up, wet and covered in mud, in the comfort and safety of her home.

The river episode is only the first of Dana’s many trips to the past. Through a mechanism that’s never really explained (though this vagueness does not at all detract from the strength of this novel), Dana keeps being transported to a slave plantation in antebellum Maryland. Sometimes she goes alone, sometimes with her husband Kevin, and what amounts to a few minutes’ absence in California can correspond to days, months or even years stranded in the past. Dana always arrives when Rufus Weylin, the child she saved, is in trouble. She soon discovers that he’s an ancestor of hers, and that her job seems to be to keep him alive until he can start what was to become her family. But the circumstances in which this happens, and which will demand her complicity, are not what Dana had imagined. Also, the relationship of co-dependency she is to develop with Rufus is far more complex than anything she could have read in a history book.

One of the most interesting things about Kindred is that it’s not so much a story about changing the past (a common theme in time travel narratives) as it is a story about having the past change you. In one of their trips to the Maryland plantation, Dana and Kevin remain there for months, and Dana realises with alarm that they can adjust to a way of life to which slavery is central – almost too easily for comfort. As she says, “I never realised how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.” And as she gets to know the other slaves of the Weylin, she learns that “slavery was a long slow process of dulling.”

The main theme of Kindred is perhaps how power differences affect personal relationships, and how in a system like slavery, power or powerlessness cannot be kept separate from friendship, love, or even the most well-meaning acts of kindness. And power does of course imply connivance – when Dana brings Kevin, her white husband, along with her, the gender- and race-based power imbalances that exist between them even in the modern world are exacerbated, and they can’t keep this from affecting their relationship to some extent. A power gap that wide poisons everything – how can you truly trust someone who has that much power over you, and who is inevitably implicated in a system that makes him profit from the exploitation of other human beings? And what to make of the troubling parallels between Dana and Kevin’s 1970’s dynamics and Dana’s relationship with Rufus Weylin?

Octavia Butler raises more questions than she gives answers, but that’s only to be expected when dealing with themes as complex as race, gender and power relations. She draws attention to the fact that not being on equal ground with someone can cause even the most well-meaning people to fail to see one another’s common humanity. Kindred explores the dehumanising effects of social injustice, privilege and powerlessness with tremendous intelligence and insight.

And speaking of dehumanisation, much of this novel’s strength comes from Butler’s ability to create fully human characters in a system that thrives on this very dehumanisation. This is true of slaves and slaveholders alike. Dana’s time in the past means that slavery ceases to be abstract for her (and for readers as well), and that means acknowledging both that she’s capable of caring about someone who routinely does monstrous things, and that there’s more to the “Mammy” and “Uncle Tom” types that she was taught to sneer at than she ever had imagined. The people she meets are real, have complex emotions, and make difficult ethical choices for reasons that can vary from simple survival to attempting to ensure the safety of those they care about. As Robert Crossley puts it in his introduction:
One of the exciting features of Kindred is that so much of the novel is attentive not to the exceptional situation of an isolated modern black woman in a white household under slavery, but to her complex social and psychological relationships with the community of black slaves she joins. Despite the severe stress under which they live, the slaves constitute a rich human society.
Kindred is both a riveting story and an intelligent and complex book, with plenty going on under the surface in terms of historical reflection, social commentary, and symbolism. The foremost example is Dana’s mutilated arm (the novel opens with the line “I lost an arm on my last trip home”, so rest assured that this is not a spoiler) – an external sign of how she was permanently changed by what she witnessed, and of how her present safety came at the expense of many, many losses.

Favourite passages:
‘I could survive here, though, if I had to. I mean if…’
‘Kevin, no ifs. Please.’
‘No.’ But he’d be in another kind of danger. A place like this would endanger her in a way that I didn’t want to talk to him about. If he was stranded here for years, some part of this place would rub off on him. No large part, I knew. But if he survived here, it would be because he managed to tolerate the life here. He wouldn’t have to take part in it, but he would have to keep quiet about it. Free speech and press hadn’t down too well in the antebellum South. Kevin wouldn’t do too well either. The place, the time, would kill him or mark him somehow. I didn’t like either possibility.

Time passed. Kevin and I became more and more a part of the household, familiar, accepted, accepting. That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatise. Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history—adjusting to our places in the household of a slaveholder. For me, the work could be hard, but was usually more boring than physically wearing. And Kevin complained of boredom, and of having to be sociable with a steady stream of pretentious guests who visited the Weylin house. But for drop-ins from another century, I thought we had had a remarkably easy time. And I was perverse enough to be bothered by the ease.

His father wasn’t the monster he could have been with the power he held over his slaves. He wasn’t a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper.
They read it too:
Bookfoolery and Babble, Libri Touches, Linus’s Blanket, Rhapsody In Books, Regular Ruminations, Kay’s Bookshelf, Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books, A Good Stopping Point

(Have I missed yours?)

41 comments:

  1. This sounds like a really deep exploration of how slavery mentally cajoled people to accept it, just as it physically forced itself on the slaves. Sci-fi (and time travel especially) just seems to have so much potntial for sorting through the most complex periods of history. Including time travel seems kind of like a concrete demonstration of historical document analysis by modern readers (pulls theory out of air). How does our version of morality conflict with earlier versions and how easy is it to accept that if we'd been around in history our morality might not have been so different from theirs...

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  2. This definitely sounds interesting. I've been meaning to read something by Butler but just haven't gotten around to it yet. Such an interesting and thought provoking idea, going back and seeing how easy it is to become a slave and how easy it is for your outlook to change.

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  3. This sounds like a perfect book for me. And I loved this: "One of the most interesting things about Kindred is that it’s not so much a story about changing the past (a common theme in time travel narratives) as it is a story about having the past change you." How could that not make an intriguing book?

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  4. I don't know how you could find a more compelling story - it has got it all. I think this is going to be one of the "must reads" for the year.

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  5. While I've heard of this book before, and known that people generally loved it, I really had NO clue what it was about. It sounds incredible. And now I'm not sure if I should make Kindred or Fledgling my first Octavia Butler read.

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  6. Insightful review. You've done Kindred justice. Octavia Butler's works are quite complex and yet accessible at the same time. Quite ingenious, this view and interrogation of slavery. Her talent was immense. I also recommend Wild Seed and The Parable of the Sower. I'm going to have to reread her works soon :).

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  7. oohhh...Time Travel, books like that always interest me.

    I agree with how fast we can get used to things. Even though we were in Srilanka for 20 days, we got used to seeing so many military people on the road and getting stopped for random checking every time we went out. It's scary.

    Love your review and I look forward to getting my hands on this book.

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  8. The other day when I was going through my purges, I read the first few pages of this to make sure I still wanted it on my shelves. They were beautifully written and Kindred definitely passed the test. I'm really looking forward to reading it in full!

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  9. Ah, I knew that Kindred was on my wishlist for a reason but I couldn't remember how much I really needed and wanted to read it.

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  10. This sounds wonderful. I love this line: "One of the most interesting things about Kindred is that it’s not so much a story about changing the past (a common theme in time travel narratives) as it is a story about having the past change you."

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  11. What a wonderful sounding book. Where do you find these books that I've never heard of!

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  12. What a wonderful sounding book. Where do you find these books that I've never heard of!

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  13. I have read other Butler books but none approaches this masterpiece. It really deserves its classic status!

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  14. Sounds like a gorgeous book! I love the time travel aspect, and it doesn't sound cheesy or lame at all like it somtimes does in other books. I've got to read this book ASAP!

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  15. I loved this book when I read it (but you already know that). I've recommended it to many, many people since then - in my opinion it's a book that absolutely everyone should read.

    Excellent review, as always. :)

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  16. This sounds absolutely amazing. It must be a very powerful book.

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  17. I have been wanting to read Butler for a while now, and Kindred never really captured my interest- until your review. I didn't realize how much she focuses on the power dynamics, which fascinate me. I'm going to read this soon.

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  18. I'm glad to see this review. I'm in the middle of Butler's Fledgling right now, and have been pondering the commentary on race and racism contained in it. With how much I'm enjoying that story, I have plans to move on to her other writing - perhaps Kindred should be the next one.

    Thanks for the excellent review!

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  19. I have only read one Butler, and it wasn't this one. This sounds like an amazing book, and like it's really ripe with the ethical implications of slavery. I find the synopsis that you provided to be really intriguing and think that I am going to have to give this book a try. It's funny because often when I read your reviews, the books are not really new to me, but the way you analyze and describe them make me wonder how I could have ever passed them up in the past!

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  20. Well put, as always. Glad you finally read this.

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  21. Wow, sounds like a great exploration of slavery and its effects on ordinary people, including how it can become so ordinary. Definitely sounds like a great and thought-provoking book.

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  22. I REALLY need to read Butler, stat. She and China Mievelle are two authors that I have been completely remiss with.

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  23. I wasn't thrilled with Fledgling but it sounds like I should give Butler another shot with this one.

    I wouldn't have a problem not knowing the mechanism of time travel. It's the space travel that might bother me. How do they get from California to Maryland? That's much stranger to me! ;)

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  24. I have an older friend who knows O.B. and urged me to read her books--all of them--when I was in my 20s. She paved the way for so many female SF writers.

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  25. Kindred was a case where I wanted to love it far more than I ended up doing. I didn't connect with any of the characters, which probably contributed to how dissatisfied I was with Butler's handling of the issues she brought up. They were fascinating issues, but I thought Butler dealt with them in rather shallow, predictable ways. (I feel guilty saying "shallow" about a book that deals with something as weighty as slavery.) I wanted her to do more.

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  26. I've always been fascinated with the idea of time travel and changing the past but I like what you said here about the past changing the character not the other way around.

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  27. I read this book a while go but remember very little about it apart from it being "pretty good". (I'm surprised to even know that she lost an arm!)

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  28. Great review. This is one of my favourite books. I read it in University and it has stuck with me ever since.

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  29. This is one of my all-time favorites. You're review gave this great book the justice it deserves.

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  30. This is one of my all-time favorites. You're review gave this great book the justice it deserves.

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  31. This sounds really good, I like the idea that the past can change you.
    Excellent review.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  32. Great review! This sounds like a very complex and unique book. I like the concept of the past changing you rather than going back and changing the past. I think I might have to read this.

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  33. Wow, this sounds really powerful. I'll have to check it out!

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  34. This sounds like a really neat take on the time travel theme. I've read one of her books and thought it was really good and need to get around to reading more!

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  35. Jodie: Yes, exactly. There's a lot of potential in the concept alone, and Butler makes excellent use of it.

    Rhinoa: This was my first Butler, but I also have Fledgling and hope to get to it soon. It sounds hard to go wrong with her.

    Iris: I think you'd definitely get a lot out of it :)

    Sandy, I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!

    Debi: From what I hear Fledgling is excellent too, though! Hopefully I'll soon find out :P

    Kinna: Thank you for the kind words and recommendations! And I see just what you mean by accessible and complex at the same time.

    Violet: We really can, and sadly we tend to forget that we can. Another book that explores this topic well is The Handmaid's Tale - I was so impressed by how quickly the unthinkable became familiar.

    Amanda: I'm glad it passed the test, and I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!

    Claire: Yep, you do need to read it :P

    Stephanie: I hope you'll enjoy it when you get to it!

    Christina: My secret are other book bloggers ;)

    Jill: It definitely does.

    Emidy: I think it's mostly that the time travel is not the main thing. She almost avoids drawing attention to the mechanism itself, which actually makes the novel stronger.

    Heather J: Thank you for the kind words! And yes, I wish more people would read it too.

    Kathy: It really was.

    Clare: I was surprised that she focused so much on the power dynamics - and that really was what made the book for me.

    Jessica: You're most welcome! I'm hoping to read Fledgling myself soon.

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  36. I have not heard of this book but I am more than intrigued by the concept. What an ingenious way to explore the moral complexities of slavery and how it compares to the society and prejudices of today. I also like that the book is about how the past changes her instead of the other way around. I think that was the hook, line, and sinker for me. Very good review!

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  37. I've been wanting to read this for a while now, but your review just sealed the deal for me!

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  38. Zibilee: That's one of the nicest things anyone's ever told me about my posts - thank you so much! I can't wait to hear your own thoughts on the book!

    Lightheaded: I'm glad I did too! And the same goes for Atonement. Really, I should just listen to you sooner, on anything :P

    Amy, it really was!

    Aarti: I look forward to hearing what you think of them both!

    Kristen M: I have Fledgling on my tbr pile - it seems to be a book that divides opinions but I hope to fall on the love it camp. Also, I'm afraid that the space travel is also never explained :P

    Jeanne: She really did. I can't believe it took me so long to read her.

    Jenny: I'm sorry you didn't like it, but don't feel guilty! (I completely understand, though. I always feel bad to say something like that about a book that deals with Big Issues.)

    Kathleen: I think both are interesting concepts, but I especially love what Butler did with it!

    Mee: Really? That's a scene I can't see myself forgetting! Or so I think now anyway :P

    Jennifer: I'd love to read this in a class. So much to discuss!

    Brenna, thank you so much!

    Naida: Thank you! It's really an excellent book.

    Dominique: It really was. I hope you'll enjoy it if you decide to pick it up.

    K. Krishna: I hope you'll enjoy it!

    Iliana: I definitely need to read more as well.

    Rebecca: The moral complexity was one of my favourite things about it. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!

    J.T. Oldfield: I'm glad to hear it - happy reading!

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  39. Excellent review of a wonderful book. I think it may be time for mre to re-read this one. I think that if any of Ms. Butler's books do become "classics" this will most likely be the one.

    But can I say how much I hate this new cover.

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  40. C.B. James: Yes, I can definitely see this becoming a classic. I wonder if it will ever cross the line from "genre" classic to classic, period. That seems to happen more easily the older a book is. I'm afraid I'll have to disagree with you on this cover, though :P

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  41. Brilliant book - I've enjoyed (if you can call it that - been engaged by, loved, etc) everything I've read by Butler (and that's quite a bit).

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