Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Every year since I started my series of book reviews, I have taken the time in February to observe Black History Month, and read a book by an African American author. Here are the past selections:

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (2014)
The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois (2013)
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (2012)
50 Years and Other Poems by James Weldon Johnson (2011)

This year, I am also reading a few other books related to the African American experience, although they were written by whites, so they don’t count toward my project. These books are:

Red Tails, Black Wings by John Holway

I have also read and reviewed a few related books in the past, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (by an African novelist), and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (whose grandmother was a an Afro-Caribbean slave.)


Kindred was recommended to my by my cousin-in-law, who teaches high school English, and shares a love of poetry and the power of the story with me. She uses this book as part of her own curriculum, and felt that it was good for connecting younger readers with the realities of the past through a riveting story.

I must say, I agree. I enjoyed the book thoroughly (although enjoyed may be the wrong word for a book with a harrowing account of life as a slave), and had difficulty putting it down.

Technically, Kindred is a science fiction book. It managed to be placed in the general fiction section of our library, despite Butler’s reputation as a SciFi writer. She herself felt it was more of a “grim fantasy” because she did not resort to science to explain the time travel elements of the book. While Kindred remains her most popular novel, she won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for her other fiction. SciFi tends to be dominated by white males, so her accomplishments are doubly impressive. 

The plot of the book is interesting. Dana, an African American woman, has recently moved with her white husband, Kevin to a new home, when she passes out and comes to in 1815 Maryland. As she later is able to determine, she is summoned by Rufus Weylin, the son of a slave owner - and one of Dana’s ancestors. It appears that when Rufus is about to die, Dana is summoned to save him. She returns to her own time whenever she fears for her own life. Like many a time travel plot before, she finds little time has passed in her own time.

While in Antebellum Maryland, Dana (and on one trip, her husband) experience the horrors of slavery. Because she is alone and out of her time, Dana cannot directly control her experiences, and must both suffer what comes and compromise with her modern beliefs in her own dignity and humanity in order to survive. Thus, she must submit to slavery and the groveling that goes along with it, suffer beatings, and do what she must in order that she keep Rufus (and thus her future self) alive.

This is particularly uncomfortable because Rufus has to take his slave Alice (formerly free, but enslaved after she helped her husband - a slave - escape) as his concubine. One of their children will be Dana’s ancestor, so it has to happen. But that really requires that Rufus rape Alice, and Dana kind of has to avoid preventing this. Real fun.

But of course, isn’t this the same dilemma faced by slave women? Should they submit? Or should they run or attempt to kill their master, knowing either would result in death? And this is just one of the issues faced. One must survive. And so, as slaves have always done, they adapt to stay alive.

On a related note, Butler portrays the slaves that go along with the system in a sympathetic light too. (Apparently, she did so in response to a young activist who couldn’t understand why the older generations went along with injustice.)

It was striking that both Rufus and his father Tom aren’t caricatures. Unlike, say, Simon Legree, they are not evil incarnate. They are not really worse than average, although they are perhaps a bit uncouth. Tom isn’t gratuitously brutal, but feels he must punish runaways or the whole of his wealth will crumble. It isn’t about about sadism, but about doing what was expected within an evil system. Thus, to a degree, Tom and Rufus are sympathetic, and this is a disturbing problem. They would have been normal, decent people in their time, but they still inflict great damage on their “property.”

I found it interesting the battle between the past and the “present” in both Dana and Kevin. Kindred was written in 1979, and Butler knew well that interracial marriage - even in the California of the late 1970s - was frowned on. Heck, it wasn’t even permitted in most northern states until the Loving Supreme Court case repealed laws forbidding it in 1967 - a mere 12 yeras before this book was written. Still, Dana and Kevin are both progressive sorts, believing in equality between the races - and the sexes. For both of them, it is a serious culture shock.

But what bothers them both is how easy it was for them to accept and acquiesce to the past reality. By necessity, Kevin and Dana pretend that they are master and slave, although everyone (rightly) assumes that they are also lovers. This bothers Kevin enough that after he is stranded without Dana for a five year period, he moves north to avoid having to completely compromise his beliefs. In some ways, he feels that he is at more risk than she is, because he is in a position of privilege.

Butler draws out another key issue by using this tension. Dana fully expects to be treated as a human being. But she is viewed as subhuman by those around her in her trip to the past. Both whites and blacks alike accuse her of “acting white” because she insists on being treated with some degree of dignity. For Rufus, this is maddeningly difficult, even though he knows Dana’s real nature, and Dana repeatedly finds herself in trouble because she cannot bring herself to lower herself at all times.

No one should think, though, that this was merely a problem in the past. As recent events around our nation have proven, it is still deadly dangerous for a young African American male to insist on being treated like a human being - like a man - by authority figures. “Bring it, you fucking animals!” was said proudly on live camera, betraying the still widespread view of blacks as subhuman and unworthy of the dignity accorded to whites. “Acting white” still has its consequences. (Seriously, it doesn’t take all that long to figure it out if you actually listen to the experiences of African American colleagues and friends.)

While Butler didn’t shy away from social commentary on her own, modern times, she also seemed optimistic about the future. Even though Dana’s relatives were unhappy with the possibility that her property could be inherited by and white man, and Kevin’s relatives refused to accept a black family member; despite even the obnoxious behavior of many around them after they became a couple; Dana and Kevin represent the future. A future that we continue to work toward. When my parents married, interracial marriage was barely legal, and for most, unthinkable. The few that did so often suffered rejection by their families. Now, one in twelve marriages is interracial, and the numbers are undoubtedly higher in my native state of California. I see more and more that the stigma is fading, and I believe it will continue to do so for my children, for whom mixed-race friends - and mixed race families - are the norm, not the exception.

Kindred is a compelling and unflinching look at the past. Most of us learn best through stories, and I think that is why this book was so moving. More than any textbook description, even more than the pictures of slaves scarred by beating, a story like this can and will bring out the reality in a way that feels real. Abraham Lincoln once greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe as “the little woman who started this great war.” There is little doubt that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did more than any academic argument to stir up opposition to slavery. For those of us seeking to understand the slave experience and its lingering effects today, stories like Kindred are a vital resource, and as necessary to us today as Stowe’s book was 160 years ago. Stories that give voice to the African American female, both the author and the narrator, are even more vital, given the domination of the discussion by white males in times past - and all too often our own.

Note on young readers:

I read a lot of crazy stuff when I was young. So did my wife. I would not consider myself particularly sheltered. That said, I would be hesitant to introduce this book to a younger reader. High school would be a great age. Maybe 8th grade for a mature reader who isn’t too prone to nightmares.

Many things have been called “adult” as a euphemism for smutty. I would label this book as dealing with adult themes, and thus best suited for those who can handle some degree of intensity. It is a real page turner, and yet it is also hard to bear for an extended period. I found myself having to take a turn about the yard to clear my head a few times, because it was overwhelming. Obviously, this is a sign of a well-written story. But it is also a testament to the power with which Butler brings her world alive.

I do intend to introduce my children to this book - but when they are a little older.

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