Kindred by Octavia Butler

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler Kindred is a time travel book and a historical fiction novel at the same time. I wanted to read this book for some time and was thrilled when I won a Book Depository voucher from Kai at Fiction State of Mind during the 24-hour-readthon. Of course, I chose this book!

Kindred: What it is about

Dana, a black woman in the 1970s is married to Kevin, who is white. They are both writers and have recently moved into a new house. When they are sitting together one day Dana suddenly disappears into a different time and place, where she saves a young boy from drowning. Kavin just has to believe the unlikely story when he sees Dana disappear, and reappear within less than a minute, all wet and muddy.

When this happens again (but now the boy, Rufus, is in a different kind of danger and a little older), she realises that he is a (white) ancestor of hers 150 years ago. She knows he will eventually have a daughter with one of the slaves on his father’s plantation, Alice.  Dana feels she has to protect and rescue Rufus from dangerous situations at least until this daughter is born.

During her (ever longer) stays in the past, she learns in person what it was like to be a black person (free or slave) in the anti-bellum South of the US. Her life is in danger a few times as she finds it hard to adapt and be demure and never answer back to the white owners of the plantation. Rufus and his family whip their disobeying slaves unrelentingly.

It is uncertain whether Dana will come back to the 1970s unharmed, or at all. She may die at the hands of the whites if she stays in the past too long.

Kindred: What I thought

From the start, I enjoyed this book immensely. I like a good time travel story and I liked the way this book was written, the style, the premise, I loved it.

Only towards the end, I started to enjoy the book a bit less. Dana’s situation gets more problematic and dangerous the longer she is in the past and I didn’t like that somehow.

There seemed to be a distance between me and what was happening in the past to Dana. Dana finds it a bit unreal, like it’s a game she an escape from. And since I was her reader, so it was for me.  But even when Dana got hurt, it didn’t feel that bad to me (I mean, not as bad as normally when a protagonist gets hurt). I think besides the idea of it being a game, I also didn’t quite identify with Dana.

I think maybe a second protagonist who lived in the past would have been interesting: a female slave who goes through the same ordeals as Dana (or worse) and comments on these from her perspective. For her everything that happened would be the reality and the only reality. I think that way it would strike home to me more directly what a terrible time these people lived in.

What didn’t really make sense to me is the following: Dana seems interested in genealogy. She knows the names of her ancestors by heart and she knows to expect the birth of a daughter at some point. She didn’t know the family background of Rufus and Alice. In her aunt’s family bible, the family tree goes back only to them. If I were in a position to find out more about older ancestors, I would take the chance and question them mercilessly about it.

Shouldn’t Dana have been asking questions about Rufus’ family? And Alice’s? By living with the family she learned the names of Rufus’ and Alice’s parents, but no more. She should have been asking all kinds of questions about where the family came from originally. But that didn’t happen.

It would have been interesting if Dana had contemplated the fact that not only did she descent from slaves, but also from their owners. For instance, how did she feel about the “bad” white ancestry in her genes? In the story, Dana seemed to consider herself only a descendant of the mixed-race child of Rufus and Alice and not so much of a white and a black family line.

And if Dana wasn’t really that interested in genealogy, how could she know the names of her ancestors by heart? The genealogy buff in me was confused.

Now, the main themes of the book were of course slavery and black/white relations. That slavery is bad, we all know and I didn’t learn much new from the book in that respect. But the book was written in 1979, and I don’t know how much this book actually contributed to the general knowledge about slavery.

The treatment of black/white relations was interesting in the book. Rufus, the son of the plantation owner, seems to accept Dana as different from the slaves and treats her better than them. But now and then he can’t help himself and just sees Dana for the black woman she is (i.e., in his eyes, not someone you need to respect or take into account). His parents allow Dana to teach Rufus to better read and write. In fact, they are hardly literate themselves and the fact that Dana is highly literate is a threat to them.

Kevin, who also ends up in the past once, finds it shockingly easy to accept the concept of slavery and most of what it represents. He and Dana do argue about this. After segregation was ended at the end of the 1960s, were mixed marriages quite accepted in society? I wonder and I think this must have caused them some stress too.

I would recommend the book to anyone who is interested in race relations, slavery or just generally in historical fiction. While there is some time travelling, which I know not everyone appreciates, it is very “gentle” in the sense that it just happens and not much is said about time travel itself.

Rating: 4.5/5 (the ending wasn’t quite so satisfactory)

I got this book: in a giveaway

I read this in: English, the original language

Number of pages: 264

First published: 1979

Genre: historical fiction, time travel

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About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at bookhelpline.com. In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

18 Responses to Kindred by Octavia Butler

  1. Cindy says:

    Sorry you were disappointed in the ending 😦

  2. Chinoiseries says:

    Interesting book, and a very clear review, but I’m not sure whether it will appeal to me. Time travel is usually fun to read about, but race conflicts either comes too close to home when reading or are difficult to relate to…

    • leeswammes says:

      It’s difficult to say whether you’d like it. The race conflicts are mainly present as part of slavery: the whites are used to treat their slaves in a certain way and won’t hold back just because Dana is not from their time. Dana is used to be treated decently and this causes a problem.

  3. I find it always dissapointing when a book I really like starts getting less interesting at the end. But you never know that until you read it.

  4. The book certainly sounds interesting. It’s been living in my tbr pile for a while now and maybe I ought to move it closer to the top, so that we can compare notes one of these days.

  5. Suzanne says:

    The problems you have with the book sound significant, but I think I’ll put this on the to-read list anyways (just not that high up on the list).

  6. Leslie says:

    This is one of my books to read for 2011 and also one of my choices for the Time Travel Challenge. I think I’ll like it but we’ll see.

  7. I’m reading this one next month. A friend recommended it years ago and I’m really looking forward to it.

  8. I do have this one on my to-buy list. I appreciate your well-balanced review. Sometimes it’s difficult to put into words what exactly takes away from making a book rate higher, and you did a superb job of it.

  9. angelica says:

    You have an excellent way of reviewing this book. You are tactful in criticizing the lack of interest in the character Dana who does little or nothing to investigate more about her ancestors. Who’s black. Who’s white. That the author does not go into much genealogy does not seem to me much of an oversight. Rather it is a matter of choice. Time traveling is a state of mind rather than an actual occurrence. Like going on a rollercoaster ride. The thrill, the shocking, the fear is what is probably in mind here. I like the oddity that Dana gets hooked on it to the point of danger; while for Kevin, he likes it not so much. The book is engaging. Thanks

  10. Cass says:

    Thank you so much for reminding me to buy this book! It’s really quite a gem.

  11. Pingback: Blood Child and Other Stories by Octavia Butler « A World Of Mots

  12. Pingback: Kindred by Octavia Butler « The Sleepless Reader

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