AUTHOR: Octavia Butler
ONE SENTENCE SUMMARY: Dana is a black woman living in the 1970s happily married to Kevin (who’s white), when she’s suddenly transported to the antebellum south in Maryland.
GENRE: Science Fiction | Historical Fiction | Neo-Slave Narrative
NOTE: Not for younger readers because it had several scenes depicting violence, mention of rape, and frequent use of the N word.
About a year ago I read “Bloodchild” an award winning story by Octavia E. Butler about humans coexisting with bug like aliens. The story is strange, weird, even grotesque, and I loved it so much I promised myself I would find Butler’s other novels and read them. This week I finally did that by reading Kindred, a mixture of a neo-slave narrative, historical fiction, and science fiction novel and it was really good.
The first thing that caught my attention as soon as I finished reading are the mixed feelings I have toward Rufus Weylin, the plantation owner’s son and heir. He is selfish, erratic, unforgiving, and violent man who continuously hurts the people around him. However, knowing that he is all those things does not erase the hope I had for him to be different at the beginning of the novel. I wanted to like him, I tried to like him because I hoped Dana would mold him into a better person, a master who would free his slaves. That’s why I find his character so disturbing, I wanted to root for him to be a better person, to somehow outgrow slavery and free everyone, but those expectations were just so unrealistic to that time period, an Rufus was just as bad as his dad.
It’s kind of like watching a baby grow. You see all the great and wonderful possibilities they are capable of and then they turn out to be a serial killer and you have no idea where you went wrong.
And that’s one lesson I learned reading this book; no matter what slavery is bad. I know that sounds very elemental and obvious thing to say, and it is, but I found myself trying to excuse Rufus’s behavior when I had no reason to. There’s just to justifiable reason to excuse his behavior slavery or no. I think that’s what happens to Dana in trying to change Rufus for the better until she realizes he’s no better than Tom Weylin, and no matter what she did to alleviate the pains of the enslaved, it would never be enough.
Apart from my conflicting feelings toward Rufus, I also felt very uncomfortable with the rape scenes in the novel. They are not descriptive at all but they are enough to be unsettling.
There is an interracial, loving, and healthy relationship between Dana and Kevin, her husband. I thought this was interesting especially when she travels to the antebellum south because it provided more complexity and depth to the main character as well as those who encountered them. They provided a stark contrast to the relationships developed in the south, and I really enjoyed seeing that in this book.
There’s also a portion of the novel where Dana’s speech and education is discussed by everyone else slaves and whites alike. I find this particularly interesting because it relates to our time and how I’ve seen people point out how others are “acting white” or “speaking white” only because of their education. It’s something that still persists today and it’s something I don’t usually see in the books I read.
Slight Spoilers Below
There was a point in the beginning where I thought “oh my god are they really going to romanticize a relationship between a slave and master?” Then I remembered “Octavia Butler, as a black woman wouldn’t do such a thing.” The only reason I thought it was going that route is because of a couple of things:
- Early on in the novel Dana knows who her great grandmother’s parents were, Rufus Weylin and Alice Greenwood Weylin.
- I’ve read enough slave narratives to know that when a slave’s father was the white master no one spoke of it or they lied about it.
- Which made me believe that Rufus had married Alice and properly recognized their children because Dana knew who her ancestors were.
That theory was squashed as the novel continued. The way Rufus showed his love wasn’t love, it was so flawed it never stopped bothering or making me uncomfortable. The rape scenes weren’t at all descriptive, but they were just as uncomfortable to read about. It’s also unsettling the way he goes about it.