Review: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (1979)


I read this book in two days for a book club meeting. I bought the Kindle version, and I have serious mixed feelings about e-readers, so I think the format definitely took away some of my enjoyment.

This isn’t really the type of book I normally read. I like time travel and historical novels, and I even like them combined, but this took some getting into. I think the particular time period threw me off a bit. The protagonist travels from 1976 California to 1819 Maryland. She’s African-American, but she has to save her Caucasian, slave-owning ancestor so that her family (and thus, she as well) can still be born in the future.

There’s no real explanation as to why this happens, which I can accept because it is in first-person, and the narrator, Dana, doesn’t even know why this is happening. She gets dragged back in time and across the country when her ancestor Rufus is in danger of an early death, and she is unable to return to her own time and place until she is threatened with mortal danger. Other than that, there don’t appear to be any set rules as to how long she will stay in either time period or where she will appear when returning home.

I really liked the plot and the character formation. Dana is a very interesting character stuck in a dangerous and often impossible situation. There are many many critical essays written on this book, but I’m out of college, and I don’t feel like analyzing more on the subject. Ultimately, it’s a book that takes a good look at both historical and modern racial interaction, which is something that’s extremely pertinent today.

Granted by “modern” I mean the 70s, but it’s amazing how similar the views are, which is actually in itself a problem. For instance, Dana is married to a white man in her time, and while it is becoming less unusual to intermarry, it does still carry a stigma in many parts of the nation. The book in a way shows how far we’ve come, but also points to how far we still have to go.

Yet, while race and history are obviously a huge theme in the book, it’s also about the human character in general. While most of the white people in the book are a waste of space (to say the least), Dana’s husband is a good man who has difficulty adjusting to the cruelty almost required to survive in the 1800s. And while many of the black characters are likeable and their suffering is heart-wrenching, some of them still exhibit the worst qualities that all humans possess in some measure: such as jealousy and betrayal.

I don’t know that I would read Kindred again, but I do recommend it, and I plan to read more of Butler’s work, which I am told is more sci-fi oriented than this book.

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