(1979 / 2018) Octavia Butler, Headline, £8.99, pbk, xxii + 295pp, ISBN 978-1-472-25822-9
This is a welcome, 2018, reprint of one of the most important novels of the 20th century: Octavia Butler's 1979 novel Kindred. .This goes beyond being a time travel story: it belongs on school curriculums everywhere!
The story tells of Dana, a young, aspiring, black writer freshly wedded to a white man in Los Angeles in 1976, who find herself frequently teleported against her will to a Maryland plantation in the period between 1813 and the American Civil War.
Her entrapment at the height of slavery is tied to the fate of a young slaver, Rufus Weylin, who she ends up saving from death whenever the young sociopath gets himself in mortal danger. Dana finds herself trapped in his time until her own life is too severely threatened, when she gets snapped back to the 1970’s.
While many time-travellers quickly blend in to the age they visit, Dana is very visibly, and psychologically, a woman out of time. Her education, dress sense and ability to read, soon draw resentment from the slave-owners who do not teach such things to their subjects. It also estranges Dana to her fellow slaves who find her too white in her angry defiant independent nature. She knows more than the rules of the time allowed women, especially slave women, to understand. Her knowledge becomes a threat to herself.
Rufus both fears and admires his mysterious saviour. He can’t hurt her too much physically or she gets snatched away in time, but as Dana’s efforts to stop him growing up to be just like his cruel, sadistic father fails, Rufus learns to torment her psychologically. He coldly, cunningly manipulates her into a situation where Dana has no choice but to help him set up another slave so he can rape the girl.
Dana’s husband briefly gets drawn into the past with her, drawing much resentment and criticism for being too lenient and not disciplining his slave (Dana) enough. Mostly, he is left at home in LA, helplessly awaiting her return. When she does come home, Dana is worse off physically than before she went, ravaged by scars from being whipped and later losing an arm too (the story is mostly told in flashback from this horrific incident). Kevin, Dana’s husband, finds himself blamed by the authorities for the injuries she displays.
The novel is a grim, uncompromising, full-on look at the horrors of slavery, with Dana caught helplessly watching the phases of Rufus’s loss of his humanity. Dana is left fearing that the only way to save herself, and her own ancestors, might involve killing Rufus herself to break free of the bonds that draw her into Rufus’s world...
Dana is aware of racism and discrimination from experiences in her own time, but she recognizes how it pales beside the intense graphic daily horror of the pre-Civil War period, Rufus is initially a pitiful child, slowly corrupted by his time. He goes from rebelling against his parents with petty acts of arson, to freely and gleefully selling a slave girl called Alice’s children to other slave-owners as a punishment for her lack of love for him. Dana realizes that Rufus really want her, but settles for other slave women as he knows Dana is out of his reach because she will be snapped away through time. He also blackmails Dana with threats not to post her mail to her husband (forced to separate from her during his own time in the past). Dana later finds that the letters were never sent anyway. Alice tries to run away, only to get herself caught, and hangs herself in her despair. Dana begins to realize that she too has to escape once and for all, and never need to be drawn back to such experiences.
The slaves are far from passive in their fate. They each rebel a best they dare in their own way, with Dana feeling painfully detached from them, and yet still as trapped and threatened as each of them.
A novel of courage under extreme duress, with some characters gaining their humanity as others, especially Rufus, lose theirs. The story often shocks and hits right in the face for the reader with powerful emotional force. Dana faces so many terrible choices and decisions.
The past scars and mutilates the present. We are shaped by the atrocities of our ancestors as well as by their scientific discoveries and achievements. History is not something to merely read. We have to live it, and recognise what we inherited from it, the bad as well as the good. If we look at our yesterday’s properly, we will never be quite the same again. That is very much a central theme of Kindred.
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