By Octavia Butler
Before reading Kindred, Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book was the most painful time-traveling book I’d read, but boy does Kindred blow it out of the water. (I’d also previously only read one book by Octavia Butler, Fledgling, considered by herself and everyone else to be her ‘lightest’ book by a long shot.) The basic premise of Kindred is that Dana, a young African-American woman from contemporary times (1970s, when the book is written), is pulled back to a slave plantation several different times in the early 1800s in order to save the life of the plantation owner’s son.
I think we can all acknowledge that the current news has made it increasingly clear that there is a white world and a black world in our country, and even sympathetic whites can’t understand what it is like to live in the black world. Reading Kindred shares some of the sense of what it must be like, though: for every interaction with a white person, even one trying to be kind, to have the possibility of death hanging over it. I was so scared for Dana all the time, and the tenseness of reading the book was exhausting, and about halfway through, I realized that this tenseness and exhaustion is not something confined to the antebellum south at all. So, while it was painful to read, it is also incredibly important, and I was so grateful to Butler because I can’t think of another author that could have communicated this feeling to readers so well.
The kind of funny thing about it, though, is that there are really three time periods: the 1810s, the 1970s, and 2015 for me, as a reader, so there’s that layer on top. Sad to say there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference in race dynamics, but the gender dynamics of the 1970s were occasionally different enough to give me pause, though that was more towards the beginning of the book when she and her husband were confused about what was going on.
It felt like it ended a bit abruptly, but I think that is more a testament to Butler’s writing than anything – I was so deeply involved in the story that coming to the end would have felt jarring no matter what the ending was. I will give this very minor teaser spoiler for people who might be hesitant about the book: it doesn’t end nearly as badly for Dana as I’d expected it to, given that the very first sentence in the book is “I lost an arm on my last trip home.”