This is one of those books that socks you in the gut as you’re reading. Octavia Butler takes you through the emotional and psychological tolls of slavery far better than any history book ever could. The innovative blend of historical fiction and science fiction is fairly genius and Butler executes it expertly.
The main character, Dana, is a black woman living a normal life with her white husband, Kevin, in the 1970s, when she finds herself inexplicably time-traveling back to the site of one of her white ancestor’s plantations to save his life. The plot evolves as Dana shuttles back and forth between times and tries to ensure both her own survival and the survival of her family.
Dana makes both friends and enemies during the times that she’s called back to the past and enters a complicated web of truth and lies. She has to take care of Rufus Weylin, who continually gets himself into life-threatening trouble, while witnessing him grow up into someone with a decidedly cruel streak. At the same time, she finds support in the community of slaves that also live on the plantation.
At first, the jolt of Dana traveling to another time was a bit much for me, but the thing is that you just have to accept that you don’t ever quite figure out why Rufus is able to pull her back in time to save him from death. It just is. It’s part of the wonder and mystery of the whole book. (I imagine Butler dropping this book on a table in front of us and walking out of the room with no explanation and a satisfied expression).
This book was intensely personal, and I imagine that one’s race/ethnicity would have a big impact on what you take away from the novel. There are several scenes of graphic physical and/or emotional violence that made me cringe and want to stop reading, because for me this is nonfiction, a part of my own history. One black woman I know who also read this book confided to me that she was actually “terrified” for Dana while she was reading. For her, there was little separation between reading the book and living the experience.
But despite the violence, and the discomfort that it brings, I fully recommend this book. It makes you think about all systems of oppression and fundamentally how easy it is to adjust to any role within it–whether you are a “slave” or a “slave owner”. The final pages and the final “choice” that Dana has to make really underscore this theme.
The only other Octavia Butler book I’ve read was Fledgling, which is much further into science fiction than this book. But after having read Kindred, I will definitely be looking to read more of her works.