I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stays grow longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana's life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
This was book number 143 in my SFF reading project. Octavia Butler was completely unknown to me until now and I am delighted to have found her. I am also pleased to see that there are several more of her works on my reading list and I look forward to them, if Kindred is representative of her quality of writing.
This was a harrowing read. Several times, I had to set the novel down and go calm myself because I was so emotionally invested in the main character, Dana, and I just couldn’t face what she would have to endure next. I’m about as white as it is possible to be (despite having a reputed Métis woman in my ancestry), but being female I could relate to some extent to the change in status Dana experienced when she was dragged over one hundred years into the past. White women may have ranked higher than the black population, but they were still largely subject to the whims of white men. And one can be a competent person in the 20th or 21st centuries, but be absolutely clueless in the 19th century! Just a small for instance: cooking. I am a tolerable cook given my electric range, a microwave and a toaster oven, not to mention a refrigerator. But when presented with a wood stove, I would be at a complete loss. Plus, I am the farm girl who refused to clean chickens—under protest, I helped with feather plucking, but nothing in the world would induce me to plunge my hands into the body cavity of a recently deceased chicken! [I have difficulty just cutting up whole chickens where all the dirty work has been done for me].
As a genealogist, I was intrigued by the premise of Kindred—that Dana was dragged repeatedly into the past to ensure the survival of one of her ancestors, Rufous, who seemed to have a casual disregard for his own personal safety. It seems to be up to Dana to ensure that her ancestress, Hagar, is conceived and born as is necessary for her own existence. One of the joys of genealogy is that you can enjoy the exploits of your ancestors with no sense of guilt or responsibility—they are long dead and you had nothing to do with their choices. I draw strength from the stories of certain amazing women in my own background and even the everyday life stories from the past can show endurance, patience and bravery. This novel turns that notion on its head, making Dana complicit in the lives of her forebears. [And I am aware of one forced marriage in my background that I have always wondered about—was this woman forced to marry her rapist? I suspect so from the few details that survive, but I wouldn’t want to be transported to the past to mediate the events].
I think this book of Octavia Butler’s would be a wonderful one to be taught in schools. I think the emotion of the work would appeal to young people and the moral questions would make for excellent debating opportunities. Should Dana help Rufous? Why did Dana's husband have such a hard time readjusting to the 20th century? So many things to talk about!