“Kindred” by Octavia Butler

“Kindred” by Octavia ButlerKindred by Octavia Butler
Published: 1979 Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 287
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased
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Earlier in the week I went on a post-finals book buying binge and picked up a novel by Octavia Butler.  A lot of people recommended that I also read “Kindred,” and so I decided to start with that.

If I had to sum up the book in one phrase, I’d say that this book is Murphy’s law applied to time travel.  Everything that can go wrong does, and at the worst possible time.

“Kindred” is technically classified as sci-fi, but it is a genre-bending novel that also incorporates elements of historical fiction.  It tells the story of Dana, a modern black woman from California who is pulled back in time to the early 1800s in Maryland to rescue her distant white ancestor Rufus when his life is endangered.  Dana makes six visits to the past during the course of the novel and is only able to return home when she believes that her own life is threatened.

Dana is forced to confront the horrors of slavery as she spends time in the past and struggles with her own identity as she is swept into life on the plantation.  Meanwhile, she finds herself in the rather awkward (and completely f’ed up) position of having to make sure that Rufus has sex with a woman named Alice so that her ancestors would be born and she wouldn’t flicker out of existence a la “Back to the Future.”

“Kindred” is such a powerful story because Dana is so easy to identify with.  She’s intelligent, resourceful, and a very much a product of modern life.  When we see slavery from the eyes of someone from our own world it makes everything seem so much more real than it would in a typical historical fiction novel.  We see Dana react to the past in a multitude of different ways, ranging from her initial realization that she wasn’t in 1976 anymore when kid-Rufus used a racial slur against her to the panic at realizing that medicine in the early 1800s could be downright scary (bloodletting?  leeches?  gross!).  It’s extreme culture shock on a multitude of different levels, but Dana eventually finds herself adapting and learning to understand the mindset of surviving the violence and dehumanization that her ancestors faced.

One of the things that I also enjoyed about this book was seeing Dana’s relationship with her husband Kevin.  She and Kevin are both writers and are very clearly soulmates.  We see some of her backstory with Kevin, including the way that both of their families handled the fact that they were an interracial couple (badly, of course).  However, the problems that Dana and Kevin face in the modern world pale in comparison to the harsh reality of life in the 1800s.

Dana discovers that anything she’s carrying when she gets pulled into the past goes with her, so she packs herself a bag and on one occasion even takes her husband with her.  Kevin tries to use his social standing to protect her, but that doesn’t make Dana’s experience of the past any less dangerous.

I read “Kindred” in one sitting and was on the edge of my seat the entire time.  Butler’s writing is articulate and powerful, and she is able to make readers not just see the past but also feel it.  “Kindred” is one of the best books that I’ve ever read, and I’d highly recommend it.

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25 comments

  1. That sounds like a great book, and I tend to like time travel novels. I can see how it would be powerful and exciting. thanks for the review!

  2. Great review. She is an author I’m looking foward to discover. This sounds excellent. A good idea to have a modern charcater go back in time to an era like this. It’s easier to identify with, I agree. I’m really curious to see how she did it.

    1. This book was amazing, and I’ve got another of her books that I’m hoping to read sometime soon. The time travel was an excellent framing device because it lets us see the stark contrast between the past and present. 🙂

      1. I just finished The Color Purple. I’m a bit disappointed. I would love to read Kindred and see how she handles the theme.
        Butler has written a vampire novel which sounded very good too.

          1. It would be interesting to know what you would make of it. I read it for a readalong and we will post on Thursday. I’m curious to see what the others thought. It really got on my nerves.

            1. Have you read “Their Eyes Were Watching God”? It has a similar setting as “The Color Purple,” and I enjoyed the story a lot once I got past the use of dialect. It had some really fun characters.

              1. I’ve got it here. The use of dialect was annoying in The Color Purple. I’ve read Zora Neale Hurston before and it was different altough she does use dialect. Celie in Walkers books sounds like child and doesn’t evolve at all. But that’s not my main issue. Not even sure how I will write that review.

              2. Hurston does a very good job with the way that she uses dialect so that you don’t get overwhelmed by it, and there’s definite character development as the story progresses.

  3. Hi Grace,

    I’m so glad you like this book (as I think I was one who recommended it). I definitely thought the story was complex and compelling. Funny, though, I haven’t read any other Butler books that I know of.

    1. Thanks for recommending it. Her other ones seem to be more in line with typical sci-fi, which isn’t a bad thing, as I enjoy the genre. I’m curious to see what her other books are like since I enjoyed this one so much! 🙂

  4. You know It’s funny I read this novel years ago and even though it has time travel in it I’ve never kept it on my science fiction bookcase. Despite the time travel device I’ve always considered it to still be historical fiction. I have an interesting sense of genre, don’t I? Sometime I don’t know how I got my degree in Library Science.

    1. It’s one of those books that doesn’t fit comfortably into just one genre, which was one of the things that I like about it. 🙂