Octavia Butler’s Kindred is a novel that will hijack your mind, body and spirit for a while. And it will not return them in nice condition.
Seriously, this book will break you.
It begins when Dana, a black woman living in 1976 California, gets transported to a plantation in 1815 Maryland. She saves the life of an impetuous and accident-prone boy, Rufus Weylin, who is the son of the plantation owner. She learns that he will go on to father one of her ancestors, and it’s up to Dana to ensure he survives long enough to sire the child.
Butler’s genius is on display from the opening pages, and Kindred is perhaps her most powerful novel. Understandably, the antebellum south is a dangerous place for Dana, but the nature of her time jumps is unpredictable and equally hazardous. She doesn’t know when she’ll be displaced, or where she’ll be taken to, so when she’s back in 1976, she never leaves her home or drives a car for fear of what might happen.
This is a brilliant move on Butler’s part. Without agency in the present, Dana becomes enslaved in both timelines, simulating the forced relocation and dehumanization of slavery. It’s demoralizing, and to survive, Dana must endure the injustices and humiliations of history.
She remarks, “I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”
However, Dana is the perfect foil for the plantation’s owner. She is educated and strong-willed — a writer who “dresses like a man” and is as much a culture shock to the people of the plantation as they are to her.
Kindred is the most horrifying yet pitch perfect novel I’ve ever read. It was impossible to put down, but at the same time I couldn’t wait until it was over. The hardest part to endure, for me, was the banality of it all. The atrocities are accepted as a matter of course, and for all his cruelty and ignorance, the plantation owner, Tom Weylin, is more dispassionate than hateful — at least relative to other slave owners at the time.
“[He] wasn’t the monster he could have been with the power he held over his slaves,” Dana observes. “He wasn’t a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper.”
The systemic nature of slavery makes it all the more horrifying. It’s not merely the theft of another’s freedom, but the institutional structure that codifies injustice and the extrajudicial violence that enforces the status quo.
More than four decades after its publication, Kindred remains an unflinching study of America’s greatest shame — and an indictment of a culture still unwilling to reckon with its past.