Summary from Goodreads:
Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother.
I think the major sticking point with Kindred is the necessary suspension of disbelief that has to happen in order for the reader to participate in the story. It’s a novel where the action is caused entirely by time travel, but Butler gives no explanation as to the hows/whys/wheres of the time travel. It just is. This is absolutely different from any other time travel novel I’ve read, and it was a bit hard for me to past this. I don’t like to accept a story where things are happening and I’m just supposed to go along with it.
However, this point of contention aside, it’s very difficult to find fault with any other aspect of Kindred. I’ve read work of Octavia E. Butler’s previously, and I was impressed. I’m even more impressed here, and I think this novel’s reputation as her finest work is completely deserved. All the complexities and subtleties of the story at work here combine into a nuanced glimpse not only into slavery but into family, sacrifice, and self-preservation.
And though it bothered me, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the time travel component of the book is not the “point”—it’s merely the catalyst for the story. Thus it makes sense that Butler isn’t overly preoccupied with explaining how it works. Much as I was miffed, I do admit that. Because the real story in Kindred is the relationship the protagonist, Dana, has with her white, slave-owning ancestor. Her task in the antebellum south is to keep him alive long enough for her own great-grandmother can be born, but doing so becomes difficult when she’s forced to save the life of a man who’s very much a product of his time, a time when black people were viewed as subhuman, or at least inferior, in almost every white mind.
What Kindred does well—does very well—is tackle the moral and ethical complexities that Dana is faced with every day she exists in the 19th century. She has to keep her ancestor, Rufus, alive to ensure that she herself is born. She abhors his actions even as she admits that she loves him as a sister or mother would. It would be easy to kill him, or to simply choose not to save his life. But this would jeopardize not only her own existence, but also the lives of every slave on the plantation that depend on Rufus for their safety and wellbeing, cruel as his treatment might often be. The situation is complicated, and there are no easy answers, and I know how difficult it can be to take a topic that is so nuanced and far from simple black-versus-white and present it in a way that not only makes sense to readers, but makes them think. Butler, however, pulled this off to perfection.
Perhaps it might actually have been easier for the author to write a straightforward, historical slave narrative. Kindred certainly doesn’t seem like the sort of thing to be written by an author more known for her post-apocalyptic tales of aliens and superpowers. But, really, I think the science fiction elements of the text (namely the time travel) do in the end add something to the narrative that could not have been achieved otherwise. For instance, placing modern characters from the 20th century into the environment of a slave plantation makes two things abundantly clear: first, how horrific and unconscionable slavery is, and second, how easy it is to become complacent and accepting of slavery, even when you know better. The first point is proven by Dana’s treatment and experiences, the second by the “acceptance” of her white husband, Kevin, who travels with her at one point. Both points are massively important to the overall theme and message of the novel, and the science fiction angle makes them possible. I think what Butler has done here is provide a different framework and context in which to view slavery, and it works startlingly well, no matter how unlikely it seems in theory.
In short, Kindred‘s reputation as not only an important work of science fiction or black fiction, but an important piece of literature, period, is justly deserved. As with my other experiences reading Octavia E. Butler, I wouldn’t say this is the most “enjoyable” book to read—her stories tend to be emotionally draining and, also, make you think long and hard about things you maybe don’t want to consider. Dana’s narrative is something to wrestle with and mull over, and it’s necessary because of this.