The late Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction explored race, religion, sexuality, family, community, and “the other.” Like the best speculative/sci-fi/fantasy fiction, her work is a reflection of modern day issues.
I read Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy a couple of decades ago, when the trilogy was published under the title Xenogenesis. The trilogy’s theme of forced human/alien interbreeding is wildly disturbing, but the work is ultimately life affirming as it confronts the reader with what is really means to be family.
I’ve always wanted to read more of her, and finding a 25th anniversary edition of Kindred on a Phoenix bookstore’s sale table last summer was just the impetus I needed.
Kindred is the story of Dana Franklin, a twentieth century black woman who finds herself transported back to the pre-Civil War South to save a white ancestor and slave owner named Rufus. Over the course of a few days of twentieth century time—and two decades of nineteenth century time—Dana will find herself transported back on six different occasions to save Rufus’s life. Her first visit lasts only minutes, but some visits stretch into months, where Dana must suffer the cruel consequences of being black in a slave society.
The reward of the story is not in finding out how this time travel is happening. (We never know how Rufus’s life-threatening situations summon Dana to the past.) The reward is following a modern woman as she is thrust back into a barbaric chapter of American history—seeing the horror through her eyes.
Butler has thrust her protagonist into the role of a slave:
• Dana’s involuntary transportation and disorientation reflects the abduction and disorientation of Africans who were captured and loaded onto slave ships.
• Her affection for Rufus, who is a child during Dana’s first two visits, is slowly replaced by fear as he becomes an adult who is all-to-ready to wield his power.
• Her role as a house slave puts her in conflict with field slaves, and her education and command of English makes her suspect among both slave and slave-owner.
• She is beaten and whipped at the whim of a master, and threatened with death.
• Choice is taken from her: even as Rufus grows more cruel, Dana cannot let him die; for until a certain child is born, this would mean the “deaths” of herself and all of her ancestors who would never be born.
Reading about the past is one thing. Living it is transformative for the protagonist. There is a touching scene, where Dana considers attitudes about certain slave “classes.” She is observing the resourceful and respected (among slaves) cook Sarah, a woman who has suffered the loss of all but one of her children as they were placed on the auction block:
She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. The house-nigger, the handkerchief-head, the female Uncle Tom—the frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose, and who knew as little about the freedom of the North as she knew about the hereafter.”
Butler allows Dana an act of retribution toward the end of the book, but it is bittersweet at best. It is an act that condemns the horrors of the past, even as it is performed with a familial sadness.
Kindred is terrifying as an adventure, masterful as social commentary, and heartbreaking as family history. There’s a reason this book is a classic.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s tribute to the ground-breaking Butler following her death in 2006.
An Interview with Octavia Butler, from 2003′s “If all of Rochester Read the Same Book” program.