Octavia Butler was one of the mothers of Science Fiction. The rare black woman in a predominantly white male world, she forged a sacred place for herself in the genre that remains a decade after her death.
“Kindred” is the story of Dana, a young black woman, and her husband, Kevin. As these two writers and newlyweds are settling into their first home in 1970s California, their tranquility is abruptly turned on its end. While shelving books in their new living room, Dana suddenly vanishes, finding herself riverside where a boy is drowning. Momentarily stunned, Dana springs into action, saves the boy, and finds herself facing the barrel of a rifle, held by the boy’s angry father. A moment of nausea and dizziness, and Dana is back in her living room, soaking wet and terrified. Shaken and disbelieving, Kevin and Dana try to understand what has happened.
Dana, it becomes clear, is traveling through space and time to a plantation in 1800s Maryland, “[n]ot only to insure the survival of one accident-prone small boy, but to insure my family’s survival, my own birth.” Rufus Weylin, the boy from the river, appears to be Dana’s ancestor who is somehow able to summon her when he is imperiled.
“‘I was home; then suddenly, I was here helping you. I don’t know how it happens – how I move that way – or when it’s going to happen. I can’t control it.'”
Rufus, at first a hapless young boy, grows to become a troubled and brutal man, heir to his father’s plantation and bigotry. Upon each return, Dana must not only save Rufus’ life, but she must also navigate the constant dangers and degradations of slavery until she is “called” home.
By employing a modern, educated black woman who is married to a white man, Butler is able to probe deeply the chasms of our country’s racial divide and the ‘progress’ we’ve made. Dana stands out in the antebellum South; she is eyed with suspicion by blacks and whites alike – for her mannerisms, her dress, and her speech. Many of the Weylin plantation’s slaves distrust her, believing that she is ‘acting white’ or betraying her race. This lack of confidence makes her ‘trips’ to Maryland that much harder, for she has few allies or confidantes.
“Carrie made quick waving-aside gestures, her expression annoyed. She came over to me and wiped one side of my face with her fingers – wiped hard. I drew back, and she held her fingers in front of me, showed me both sides. But for once, I didn’t understand.
Frustrated, she took me by the hand and led me out to where Nigel was chopping firewood. There, before him, she repeated the face-rubbing gesture, and he nodded.
She means it doesn’t come off, Dana,’ he said quietly. ‘The black. She means the devil with people who say you’re anything but what you are.'”
No futuristic, dystopian tale, “Kindred” employs our own barbaric past to impart wisdom and critique. It is, like many stories of time-travel, a morality tale; but unlike many of its kinsmen, “Kindred” has historical import. It seems to me that Butler is celebrating how far we have come as a nation, while forcing the reader to acknowledge how intertwined our past is with our present and how near that past lies. Our history as a nation is a complicated one. Our inheritance and our accomplishments have not come without great costs, nor have they come without disparate privilege.
“Kindred” is full of language that is plain spoken, sometimes even pedestrian, a feature particularly striking in a narrative built around two writers. Though the prosaic language can be moderately disappointing and even off-putting, the book is exceptional for its concept and execution. The twists and turns of Butler’s narrative are expert and irresistible.
Originally published in 1979, “Kindred” was Butler’s big break and it is easy to see why. This story doesn’t bind Butler to the challenges of world building that so often limit Science Fiction’s audience. By employing history and a well-known narrative, Butler’s “other” is not at all alien. The horrors of our not so distant past are enough to frighten and engage us; the result is pure literature that transcends genre.