I’ve been travelling across the South recently and wanted to read a book that would suit both my weird tastes and reflect some of the history of America. Being a fan of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower I checked out her most well known book, Kindred.
In 1976, Dana, an emerging African-American writer is married to Kevin, also a novelist. While they are moving into their new apartment, Dana is overcome by dizziness and is transported through time and space to 1800′s Maryland, a state of slaves and masters. She is pulled between the past and the future multiple times, each in longer intervals. Each trip is tied to her ancestor Rufus, a young white boy who grows up over the space of the novel. Dana believes she is sent to protect her ancestor from dying before producing the daughter that would become her great-great grandmother.
I was the worst possible guardian for him – a black to watch over him in a society that considered blacks subhuman, a woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children.
When Dana and Kevin are first pulled into Maryland, they assume the roles of slave and master. But as Butler progresses the story, Dana comments that she is no longer acting, she has taken on the role of the slave. Butler compares the role of fear in developing subservient behaviour to that of the Nazis in World War II.
Like the Nazis, ante bellum whites had known quite a bit about torture – quite a bit more than I ever wanted to learn.
Dana is eventually faced by a choice: to become fully indentured as a slave and protect the lives of many or protect herself and risk the life of the slaves on the plantation. Both a feminist and African-American novel, the choice she eventually makes demonstrates the importance of protecting her individual identity when the society of the time dehumanizes her.
What is most interesting about the book is Butler’s exploration of whether or not you can create a slave, taking a strong woman of the 70s and displacing her into history without even an explanation for her travels. While the lack of explanation for her time travel is disconcerting, the book breaks down how easily a person can be indentured to hard work by torture. The torture of the pre-war South is vividly described; Dana suffers not only the backbreaking work in the fields and home but whippings, beatings and physical abuse. What is a matter of years for the plantation owners is only hours and days for Dana; her wounds are not allowed to heal before she is transported again.
Dana’s urge to help her ancestors turns when she realises that Rufus is torn between his love for a black woman and his role of plantation owner. In Rufus’ character we find a dichotomy of the desire to change but the impossibility of adopting 70s racial values in a world where whipping blacks is considered fair. The relationship between Dana and Rufus changes as the boy grows into a young man; he plays power games in a bid to gain control over someone who, despite color and gender, is more educated and intelligent than he is.
I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.
Kindred is an important story; Octavia Butler is an important novelist. While she is most well known for her science fiction, having won both Hugo and Nebula awards, Kindred is a “grim fantasy” and one of only two novels she wrote about the past. As I walked around the plantations in Louisiana, I could not help but imagine Dana and the characters of Kindred wandering the grounds, sleeping on the floor of dirt ridden cabins, fighting illness and avoiding the punishment of the slave drivers. While the story is fantastic in nature, it illustrates the nature of slavery and the way power can be used to indoctrinate someone into subservience.