One of my reading kinks is to learn as much as I can about the setting, author, historical events mentioned, etc, as I can while I am reading. I always look up new words and I highlight my favorite passages. I am a full-on book nerd.
So when I began reading Kindred by award-winning sci-fi author Octavia Butler, I had to find out more about her. I mean, how many black, female sci-fi authors do you know? A multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, Octavia Butler became, in 1995, the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as a Genius Grant, a prize awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation typically to between 20 and 30 individuals, working in any field, who have shown "extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction" and who are citizens or residents of the United States.
Cool. A genius.
So, yeah, let's learn a teeny bit about Octavia Butler first.
By age ten she was already writing and reading sci-fi, and begging her momma for a typewriter so she could write like a grown-up. She had a bunch of notebooks already full of her writing and ideas as a very young girl. While in college in 1965 she was involved in the Black Power Movement where she got the kernel of an idea that, eventually, became this book, Kindred. Her main message of the book, as summarized from several interviews, that the book is written to show how a person can learn subservience as well as dominance.
She went on to write Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Kindred (1979), Blood Child (1984) for which she won the Hugo Award, Imago (1989), Parable of the Sower (1993), Fledgling (2005), several sci-fi series books, and many, many other short stories and novels. Though most of her writing was straight up sci-fi including aliens, future wars, super humans, and vampires, an underlying theme of slavery, classism, racism, and diversity weaves through all of her writing. Octavia was, above all, a storyteller who used all she had in her to write stories that were born in her amazing mind.
I have not read any other book by Octavia Butler before this book Kindred. Though I now know that Kindred is a book often read by students in race relations classes in colleges across the country; wish I was in one of those classes now so I could participate in a discussion of the book. Alas, I am not so I will be relying on my own dang self to write this review.
The protag of Kindred is a twenty-something newlywed author named Dana. She and her husband are in the middle of moving into a new home in California 1976 when she begins to feel funny, dizzy, squiggly. With very little warning she disappears to her husband and appears in a wooded area where she can see a river in front of her. In the river is a young boy drowning. Dana rushes into the river and rescues the boy, including bringing him onto shore and administering CPR and mouth-to-mouth to bring him back from the edge.
Over the course of the book both Dana and her husband Kevin move back and forth between their home and the plantation in Maryland. The interesting thing about this time travel is that, though Dana and her husband are tossed through time abruptly and for extended periods of time, these characters seem to accept this travel with waaay less freaking out than I think I would do. But, to be fair, in the past, Dana is constantly having to figure out how to move through whatever crisis she is thrown into, through antebellum slavery, and through the plantation politics of the time.
Each time Dana is pulled back into the past, into Rufus's life, it is because Rufus is in some life-threatening danger and Dana is there to rescue him. As we get to know Rufus better, the son of a typical plantation owner, slave owner, slave abuser, we begin to see that Rufus is, in some ways, as much a victim of his father's philosophy as are the slaves he "owns", many of whom we get to know fairly intimately in this book.
Rufus and Dana's relationship is an odd one, one I can only compare to the relationship of some characters in a book by Mary Doria Russell's book The Sparrow, slave and master, yet not. Equals, yet not. Educated human being verses differently-educated person holding power over them. Even while Rufus relies on Dana for emotional connection and guidance he is still the son of a slave owner and he behaves as such. We begin to hope that the actions and the teachings and the modeling of Dana to Rufus will have a large and a profoundly changing influence on him as he, one day, will inherit the plantation, and therefore, the people.
We also hope, as we learn about the other relationships in this slave narrative, that good things will happen to the people that we have come to know and love. Yet their circumstances do not bode well and our hearts, as we expect, will break.
One of my favorite quotes in the books comes from Dana musing about Rufus's father, Tom Weylin, and his general behavior as a slave owner:
His father wasn't the monster he could have been with with the power he held over his slaves. He wasn't a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society told him were legal and proper. But I had seen no particular fairness in him. He did as he pleased. If you told him he wasn't being fair, he would whip you for it.
Still I enjoyed the book and I was moved by the humanity...and by the lack of it in characters. In fact, I would love to have seen more of some of the secondary characters in the book. In fact, I felt that there were many pregnant untold stories in this book that I would have loved to see some bones to. There is some beautiful symbolism in some of the actions in the book and a good deal of thoughtful prose. I continue to be appalled at the behavior of human beings who cannot or who do not acknowledge the equality of all human beings on the planet, with zero exceptions. And one must also see the threads of slavery that continue to run through our 2018 America. I wonder what Octavia Butler would make of our current administration.
I give this book five stars.
I wanted to give it higher, but the writing was a real and continuous draw back for me.