52 Books by 52 Women: Kindred

As a guy who read mostly genre fiction in high school—mostly fantasy, with some light sci-fi thrown in—and then abandoned it entirely in college when I discovered Russian novels, I’d always meant to check out Octavia E. Butler but never got around to it. So when I started the 52 Books by 52 Women challenge of reading female authors I’d never read before, she was pretty high on my list of authors to read.


My coworker Brandi has been reading a lot of Butler lately, so I asked her, “If I was going to read only one Octavia Butler book, which one would you recommend?” She thought a bit and said Kindred—which, as it happened, I’d already put on hold at the library based on what I’d gleaned from the author’s Wikipedia page. I’d found my next book.

Kindred is barely sci-fi at all, and in fact the cover lists it as “science fiction/African-American literature.” There’s time travel involved, but nobody really knows exactly how it happens, although there’s a bit of idle speculation about it.

A young African-American woman named Dana suddenly finds herself mysteriously transported from Los Angeles in 1979 (the present day when Kindred came out) to rural Maryland in the early 1800s. And I do mean suddenly: One minute she and her husband are unpacking boxes in their new house, then she gets dizzy and the next minute she’s next to a river in the woods, where she saves a young white boy from drowning, only to be nearly killed by his freaked-out parents. When the arriving dad pulls a gun on her, she’s gone again and back at home, although not in the exact spot she left. And her husband saw her disappear and reappear, so it’s not as if she dreamt it. And it’s not long before it happens again, when she vanishes to find the same kid in trouble again, only a few years older this time.

As it happens, Dana knows a fair amount about history, and a little about a lot of other things—both she and her husband are writers—and she figures out the basics pretty quickly. Whenever this boy’s life is in danger, she somehow is summoned back in time to rescue him, although whether the power to make this happen lies with him or her or both is a mystery. This kid is a white ancestor she never knew she had, which she only knows now because she recognizes his name—Rufus Weylin—from a family bible Dana owns that originally belonged to Rufus’s as yet unborn daughter Hagar. So Dana figures that she has to keep Rufus around at least long enough to father this daughter and make her own existence possible. Dana’s returns to her own time seem to happen only when Dana is afraid she’s about to die, and no lesser danger will do.

And of course the other thing she realizes is that this is a very, very dangerous time and place to be a black woman. She’s in the South long before the Civil War, and the Weylins are very much a slaveholding family. Rufus is a careless child who grown into a careless man, so Dana gets pulled back to help him an awful lot, and because the bar set for her return is so high, she can spend months at a time in the 1800s before returning to 1979, where she’s usually been gone only a matter of minutes, hours or days—and only has a similarly short amount of time to rest in her own time before she’s whisked back to Rufus again.

But all that is just the plot device. The heart of the book is all she experiences on the Weylin plantation while she’s there: the nuances of interaction between the slaves and the complicated politics of the cruelty of their masters. Rufus is the only one who knows Dana comes from a different time, when slavery’s abolished and she can be married to a white guy with relatively few problems (in fact it’s isn’t even mentioned that Kevin is white until it becomes relevant). But Rufus is also very much a product of his time and family, and knowing Dana’s used to a very different sort of life doesn’t change what he’s used to, so one of the greatest worries of the book is wondering what kind of man Rufus is going to grow up to be—and more importantly, whether he’s going to make life better or worse for the slaves on the family land.

There’s not a lot of suspense about what’s going to happen to Dana or her husband, because the prologue is told by Dana after her last return from the past, so we know where they wound up, just not where they went along the way. And yes, I say “they” because Kevin has a part to play in this adventure too, although it’s Dana’s story and always told from her point of view. But it’s an often gripping story that takes an unflinching look at slavery in America from the perspective of an observer who’s both an outsider with modern sensibilities but also in the thick of plantation life.

On a minor note, I really came to enjoy how matter-of-factly people started to take Dana’s disappearances and reappearances over the years, often right before their eyes. They didn’t know what the heck her deal was or how it could be possible, but after a while they just got used to it. That’s a point Butler comes back to again and again in Kindred—that it’s amazing how people can get used to anything after a while.

Next book: I actually haven’t decided! Whatever it is, I’ll start reading it tonight from the stack of books on my bedside table, but for now, it’s a mystery.

Books read in the challenge so far:

Week 1: Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Week 2: Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment