Thoughts  Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, Beacon Press 2004 (orig 1979), 264 pages

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Though this book is labeled ‘Science Fiction’ and presumably because it has a time travel component, it offers no technicalities; the phenomena of time travel is not explored. This is probably one of my problems with the story, although I highly appreciated the explanation (found in the Reader’s Guide at the end of the book) in the Critical Essay by Robert Crossley.

BEWARE:  SPOILERS!  (I don’t think it really ruins it to know all this, though. I beg forgiveness in advance.)

Our protagonist is Dana, a young black woman, newly married to Kevin, a white man. They have only one day moved into the house they purchased; their first home. Both are writers.

All of a sudden, Dana feels dizzy and disoriented and feels pulled into another dimension. She finds herself in rural Maryland on the side of a river. She sees a young boy drowning and runs to rescue him. The boy’s parents, however, are not grateful for the help, because she has appeared out of nowhere and is doing who-knows-what (mouth to mouth) to their son! The father points a gun at Dana and begins to question her but her fear sends her back home to California, to her home, to her husband. He says she has only been gone a few minutes, if that.

Here is where I didn’t get quite convinced by Dana’s attitude. She instantly assumes it will happen again rather than question the WTF of it all. Sure, if you have to ask, I’m not sure what she should have done differently but this acceptance of it rather than the shock of it had me question that something-something. But roll along with it, I did anyway.

Of course, it happens again — later that same day in Dana’s ‘real’ life. She once again feels dizzy and prepares for another travel back. She ends up meeting the same boy but he is older. She gains enough information about where she is, who the boy is and what year it is, that she discovers that this place she is pulled to is her ancestral home in 1815. She gets sent to the past when the boy’s life is threatened and she gets sent to her present when her life is threatened.

A time of slavery. A time of peril for ‘undocumented’ black people wandering around. Especially black women. Dana faces all of it courageously and with mostly calm detachment, hoping only to survive herself as well as not interfere with how her family gets established. Perhaps ‘detachment’ isn’t quite the right word, but she certainly is thoughtful and intelligent about her situation rather than hysterical. She lives in two worlds and realizes the craziness of it, but does the best she can. She is bright, resourceful, understandably angry and astute. She is a modern woman thrust into a violent time when she had no rights. Her ability to balance this precariousness was amazing. And I thought extremely well-done.

Except for a few perplexities on my end as to Dana’s AND her husband’s motivations and reactions, I did think this story was fascinating. Butler did an outstanding job describing life on a plantation and both exploring what might be considered typical expectations of life ‘back then’ but also how personalities varied and were not stereotypical. The characters were fleshed out, authentic and not just political pawns, so to speak.

A fascinating look at slavery in American in the early nineteenth century.

Rating:  Four slices of pie.


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22 thoughts on “Kindred

  1. She lives in two worlds and realizes the craziness of it, but does the best she can.

    I think you just got to the crux of the story and how it relates to the present time. I read it a few years ago, and all I could come up with is “this story is smarter than me.”

  2. Thanks for your review, I’ve thought about reading this book but haven’t been sure whether I want to or not, but I think I will pick it up now.

  3. I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time too. I suppose time travelers who get sucked into it and can’t deal are the ones who end up as patients in psychiatric hospitals instead of main characters in novels.

  4. Great review, Care. I read this several years ago and remember being impressed by it. I have read other books by Octavia Butler but it was a while ago and I would like to reread them.

  5. I thought this one was so interesting because sci-fi doesn’t often look at how terrifying time travel might be for a person of color in a time of slavery. There’s a great Doctor Who episode (season 3) that touches on this too.

  6. I have only read Kindred and Fledgling by Butler. I know she is shelved as a sci fi writer, but based on the two books I have read; Butler only uses science fiction in order to explore ideas. So Dana’s easy acceptance of time travel is not addressed, because what Butler wants to the reader to think about is the psychological ramifications of slavery, both past and present. What is truly disturbing about Kindred is not just the brutality of U.S. institutional slavery, but Dana’s and Kevin’s tightrope walk between survival and complicity.

  7. Intriguing….. Time travel is usually a no-no for me too. I always have a difficult time believing the behavior of the traveler (unless it’s a certain doctor)….

    1. Yes, thank you. I think I just wanted to battle the stereotype of SciFi being about robots or something. You have an excellent point and it applies well to this story.

  8. I’m very very VERY big on time travel, and somehow Kindred didn’t work for me, as much as I wanted it to. I was never invested in the characters no matter how terrible the things were that happened to them.

  9. I was not entirely convinced of Dana’s relationship with her husband, either! I wonder if hat part of the book is more dated? It was written in the 1970s, I think, and it may have been the gender roles that bothered me…

    1. ok, I both loved it for it’s NOW and modern-ness as well as thought it a plot device AND yet wondered about how hard and how wonderful he was for lots of things – MUCH to explore here…

  10. I admit that I skimmed your review because of the spoilers, but I’m glad you liked it. Heather from Age 30+ told me awhile back how much she loved this book, and I was thrilled to find a copy at a library sale. Now I just have to make time to read it. 😉

  11. I know what you mean about there not being an explanation for the mechanics of it, and I can understand why that would be unsettling, but, at the same time, I think it was the lack of detail surrounding those transitions that added to the credibility of it for me. It made it easier for me to identify with her because I wouldn’t know what the heck was going on either! (And I could particularly relate to her having it happen when she was unpacking books too!)

    One of the other things that I really enjoyed about the book was the relationship between them; it wasn’t uncomplicated, but overall it was such a positive supporting relationship, and it seems like you don’t see that very often in fiction or, when you do, it doesn’t seem credible either. I haven’t seen the reader’s notes that you have in your edition, but I’m definitely curious now!

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