Kindred is book 5 in the #20BooksofSummer Challenge!

Content Warning: slavery, rape, whipping, physical beatings (punching, kicking, slapping), the n-word, drunkenness, amputation.

Whew, that’s as many content warnings as I could think of, but you should expect so many with a book about slavery and racism. Kindred, a science fiction novel by the amazing Octavia Butler (whom I’ve written about before), was originally published in 1979.

The synopsis is so concise (and how often does that happen?) that I will use the back of the book:

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 across the years to save him. After this first summons, Dana is drawn back, again and again, to the plantation to protect Rufus and ensure that he will grow to manhood and father the daughter who will become Dana’s ancestor. Yet each time Dana’s sojourns become longer and more dangerous, until it is uncertain whether or not her life will end, long before it has even begun.

The “contemporary” timeline is set in 1973, which would have been contemporary when Butler wrote the novel. Also, I’m not sure why the synopsis fails to mention that Dana’s husband, Kevin, is white. It makes a big difference because on one terrifying occasion, he ends up going back to the past with Dana — and as you can imagine, a white man’s and black woman’s experiences are drastically different on a plantation in the South. Kevin pretends to own Dana, which is done for her protection, but this reader certainly wondered when he would grow to like the idea of owning a slave. This is a brilliant way in which Butler discusses racism. In fact, after the couple have spent several weeks in the past, Kevin says the plantation isn’t that bad because the owner doesn’t seem to pay attention, but the slaves do their work. The novel is narrated by Dana, and this passage begins with Kevin:

“One [whipping] is too many, yes, but still, this places isn’t what I would have imagined. No overseer. No more work than the people can manage . . .”

 

” . . . no decent housing,” I cut in. “Dirt floors to sleep on, food so inadequate they’d all be sick if they didn’t keep gardens in what’s supposed to be their leisure time and steal from the cookhouse . . . And no rights and the possibility of being mistreated or sold away from their families for any reason — or no reason. Kevin, you don’t have to beat people to treat them brutally.”

 

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I’m not minimizing the wrong that’s being done here. I just . . .”

 

“Yes, you are. You don’t mean to be, but you are.”

 

Similarly, slaves are convinced that they could have it worse if they were with another owner. They mention it throughout the novel, and at first Dana feels superior to them until she sees the nearly-dead body of a slave who tried to escape and was captured.

octavia butler
Octavia Butler

Then there was a passage so chilling, so close to reality today that my blood boiled. Kevin and Dana discussed the different experiences in present-day (1973) California. Kevin’s sister lives in La Canada and married a Nazi-sympathizing man. Kevin says, “Now she lives in a big house in La Canada and quotes cliched bigotry at me for wanting to marry you.” In this scene, Kevin, the white man, wants sympathy for the racism he faces for marrying a black woman. Dana responds:

“My mother’s car broke down in La Canada once,” I told him. “Three people called the police on her while she was waiting for my uncle to come and get her. Suspicious character. Five-three, she was. About a hundred pounds. Real Dangerous.”

It’s amazing the way Kindred feels fresh and relevant at almost 40 years old. And the science fiction is the vehicle that bridges the racism in the 1800s and 1973. In 2017, people ask if racism is over, and why African Americans can’t “get over” slavery. In 1979, Octavia Butler knew that historical link was strong and doesn’t let go.

One way to show history affects us constantly is by making Dana spend most of her time in the 19th century instead of 1973. When Dana first is called to the past by Rufus, she is there for about 15 minutes, but Kevin said she only disappeared for seconds. When she returns to her home, it’s almost the exact same time. When Dana is transported to the 1800s and stays there for months, she returns to 1973 to find she disappeared for a few hours.

OctaviaEButler_Kindred
I also like this cover, which suggests the two worlds Dana navigates.

While Rufus ages about 20 years in the novel, each time Dana is sent home, it’s pretty much the same day, so if she’s whipped on the plantation and then goes back to 1973, she only stays in 1973 for a few hours before she is summoned back to the past — with raw lashes on her back and someone claiming she’s due for another beating because she hasn’t had one in years. For Dana, it’s been hours. It all adds up to Dana experiencing a lifetime of slavery in about two weeks, total.

In total, Dana is called to the past six times. Butler breaks the chapters into each time Rufus summons her and ends with her transportation back to 1973. Which, by the way, only happens when she’s almost killed. Yes, the chapter begins with Rufus almost dying and ends with Dana almost dying.

The novel is so compelling because Dana seems smarter, more capable, thanks to her 1970s knowledge about medicine and germs and what the future holds for slaves. But there are power struggles that render her powerless, and the feeling ended up in this reader, too, leaving me feeling exposed. Will Dana be raped, killed, die without medicine, etc. It’s such a fine line Dana and Rufus tiptoe with each other after they talk to each other and try to figure out what’s going on, and I was always waiting to see when things would snap.

Highly recommended.

20 books 2017
This is book #5 of my #20BooksofSummer challenge, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books.

 

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47 thoughts on “Kindred is book 5 in the #20BooksofSummer Challenge!

  1. I really want to read Kindred. I can’t get it at the library, though, so it’s on my “to buy” list (which is long!). Your review has definitely bumped it up the list! I love science fiction, but I got a bit burnt out on it because I was so tired of the ubiquitous “misunderstood genius man” trope. This sounds like it would be very much better than that, but probably also somewhat harder to read.

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    1. There is one whipping scene that is pretty awful, and one whipping scene that Dana’s husband tells her about (Dana is the narrator, so we don’t get full details of the event because she didn’t see it). I definitely get burnt out on how male-dominated science fiction can be, too. Octavia Butler is your woman, then! She is the science fiction queen! I’m surprised you can’t get this book at your library; it’s a classic. Do you ever request your library get a book for you?

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  2. Five books already, you’re setting a cracking pace! I have Octavia Butler on my SF shelves most of which I haven’t read for decades. Time to go back and see what I missed (back when misunderstood genius was all I was looking for)

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    1. She writes these fantastic black female leads that you don’t see very often. And in all of her interviews, she always claims she wrote the book how she wanted it told and she supposes it’s science fiction. Basically, she wasn’t setting out to write a sci-fi book, which has a number of familiar tropes, but she DID include science fiction to tell the story to the best of her ability.

      Also, I think part of the reason I’m setting a good pace is because I’m listening to two audio books this summer, which I can play when I’m doing dishes or eating or other tasks that usually require balancing a book on one’s head.

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  3. I have kindred on my bookshelf though it has taken me a while to read it. I think I was hesitant when I saw it being described as dystopian. I usually think of alternative worlds like in fantasy or epidemics/apocalypse kind of way when I hear dystopian. However, time travel I can handle and I am interested in all the themes that you mentioned. Wonderful review.

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    1. Thank you, Diana. Yeah, I would definitely NOT call this dystopian, a term that typically refers to a destroyed society that people are still trying to live in, and it’s the “end of times.” This is time travel for sure. I think you would like it!

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    1. My mind gets BLOWN by how many people haven’t heard of Octavia Butler before! I can’t remember the first time I heard of her, though, which just suggests that people aren’t being introduced to her in a formal way, like at school. I think I first heard of her in a book club sponsored by the Africana Studies Department at a college near me. We read Parable of the Sower, which was fantastic. I later learned it’s part of a series.

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    1. Time travel can get super messy. I actually love the first two Terminator movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but they kept making more and more films. Not only was the acting in these later films shoddy, but the plausibility of time travel actually existing became thinner and thinner. If you do something in the past to prevent a horrible future, there shouldn’t be infinity other timelines that would allow the bad guys to come back and undo your efforts. In Kindred, the timelines are very clear, and there’s only two. It’s incredibly easy to keep straight.

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    1. Yes! I saw that!! Wow, I didn’t realize it just came out this year. I remember that it DID come out and me thinking, “Crap, I should read my book.” And that is yet another reason why my two 2017 goals are the fat fiction AND reading books by women of color that I already own.

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    1. Definitely. This is a stand-alone novel, so if you don’t happen to like her style (though I must tell you the punctuation is deliciously perfect!), then you can stop there. A lot of her other books are part of trilogies. I read Parable of the Sower and really liked it, but then I found out that it was part of a series, and I don’t like devoting time to series because they ask so much from a reader’s time and devotion. On the other hand, Parable of the Sower ends in such a way that it COULD be read as a stand-alone novel. That’s how I read it. Same thing with Oryx and Crake, a science fiction novel by Margaret Atwood. Have you read that trilogy?

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      1. No, I’ve been meaning to read it for ages, but I read some of her short stories a year or so ago and wasn’t overly thrilled by them, and that’s kinda made me shove O&C down the priority list…

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        1. I actually haven’t read any of Atwood’s short stories, so I can’t compare, but Oryx and Crake is a classic sci-fi book, one that I taught to high school students, and they loved it. I think the concepts aren’t in your face, but they are easy enough to find and talk about in a group discussion.

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      1. I honestly think your reviews are more detailed and thoughtful than mine 🙂 But I will let you know my thoughts once I read the book!

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  4. I LOVED this book! You mentioned the connection to modern day – another book by Octavia Butler that really made me think about present times in the US today was Parable of the Talents. If you get a chance – read that one too (if you haven’t already) 🙂

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  5. Oh my gosh… I really really REALLY want to read this one right now, don’t mind all the triggers even. I’ve been super interested in this topic lately. With all the related books I’ve been reading. But this, time travel even? I just absolutely must read this. Thanks for pointing it out! I had absolutely not known about this one or even heard about it.

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  6. Great review! This sounds like a fabulous read, and I’m adding it to my TBR 🙂
    Good job on the content warnings – very clear as to the type of violence in the book without any spoilers.

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      1. Yep!
        And funny thing – one of my coworkers was just talking about this book today! What a coincidence! Kindred is apparently required reading for the juniors at one of the high schools in my area. My coworker isn’t in high school, but she likes to stay caught up with what books the schools have the kids read.

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  7. Ok, really long comment here :). First, Kindred. Exceptional book. I first heard of Octavia Butler about 2 years ago when I found Kindred at our public library. And it’s now one of my favorite books. I taught it this past year to my students and plan to teach it again this next school year as it’s the book that most designated their favorite unit of the school year. And you’re right to point out the not mentioning that Kevin is white (on the cover blurb). It’s such an integral part of the story. Personally, I find Kevin to be a bit insufferable, esp when he begins to accuse Dana of enjoying living around Rufus. It’s such an important read for so many reasons, and I appreciate about her that it’s not ever gratuitous or over the top. It just is. And that’s terrifying.

    Next: Reading through the comments, saw you discussing Oryx and Crake. I just finished this book about a week ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d listened to The Year of the Flood on audio, without knowing it was part of a series, but Atwood is really good at making sure her books are able to standalone.

    Which leads to this! Parable of the Sower is so good. SOO GOOD. It’s a shame that Octavia Butler isn’t celebrated more. Talked about more. I mean, outside the small community of people reading diversely. The online community. Bah. Long-winded commenting, sorry. But anyway, after reading Kindred, I got pretty into reading more of Butler’s works, and honestly, loved Parable and was really frightened by it too. I started reading Parable of the Talents as well, and honestly, you don’t need to read Sower first. Everything is filled in without being overly obvious.

    Anyway! Thanks for covering Kindred!

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    1. Hey, Jupiter! Glad you’re teaching Butler. She’s pivotal in the sci-fi community, but the whole genre is so male dominated that it’s easy for her to slip through the cracks. I think there should be a Butler award in addition to the Hugo award. Butler also has a trilogy about genderless people in space (I think). I haven’t read it, only reviews of it. I didn’t know the MaddAddam trilogy could all be read as stand-alone novels! I read/listened to them in order.

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  8. I have had this on my list for so long, but haven’t ever gotten to it. I’m glad to hear you liked it – I feel like I saw a few negative reviews a while ago, and they might have made me hesitate.
    In your review, I was especially struck by the section about slaves convincing themselves other slaves have it worse, and Kevin sort of ‘defending’ the plantation just because it doesn’t seem as bad as others. Just like many other abusive situations…

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    1. It’s really a test of how much abuse a person will take. It’s scary to me because you can take that logic and apply it to so much beyond slavery. I mean, imagine a woman saying, “Well, he yells at me, but he doesn’t HIT me.” That kind of thing. It’s a fantastic book in plot and character, and it’s super polished. Butler doesn’t do anything “fancy” with sentence structure or grammar, so it all feels very clean. It’s a fantastic book, and for some reason I had it on my shelf for years, too. The #20BooksofSummer challenge really asks me to reevaluate what I have on my shelves, and I try to stick with that. So far this year I haven’t swapped anything out on my challenge, except the 1st Sarah’s Scribbles book for the 2nd (because I wanted to buy the book and support the author).

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