Book Review: “Kindred” by Octavia E. Butler

My rating:

It’s July 1976. Dana Franklin just woke up in the hospital—minus an arm. She swears her husband, Kevin, had nothing to do with it but the police are skeptical. Clearly Dana and Kevin know exactly what happened and it somehow involves a wall and an explanation no one in his right might would believe.

The story starts a few days earlier. Dana and Kevin (a mixed race couple: Dana is black, Kevin is white) are moving into their first house, unpacking a myriad of boxes when Dana starts to feel faint. Suddenly she’s not in Kansas—er California—anymore. She finds herself watching a child struggling in the water while his panicked mother looks on. Dana springs into action, rescues the child and has just succeeded in resuscitating him when she finds herself looking down the barrel of a shotgun. Again with the fainting and she is suddenly back home.

Kevin is stunned to see her return drenched, covered in mud, and ten feet away from where she’d disappeared. She’d been gone only seconds, but several minutes had elapsed when she was rescuing the child.

The next time she disappears, Dana confronts the same little boy, now a few years older and in his bedroom where he’s just set the drapes on fire. After Dana has removed the burning drapes and dropped them out the window, she discovers the boy’s name is Rufus Weylin, the son of a plantation and slave owner near Baltimore; the year is 1815. She is shocked to recognize the name from an ancient family Bible, and Dana begins to realize that the purpose of these “time jumps” is for her to keep Rufus (and consequently his descendants including Dana) alive.

Each time Dana disappears, it’s for a little longer: days or months in 1800’s time but only minutes or hours in 1976 time. Life is dangerous for a black woman in the pre-Civil War south and Dana has to learn how to survive while still maintaining her pride and dignity. She is treated like a privileged black woman—free but not really free. She is resented by the plantation slaves for “acting white” and mistrusted by the whites who believe an “educated” black means nothing but trouble.

The third time Dana “travels” Kevin is holding her and transports with her, but when she returns he’s not near: he stays in the 1800s, she returns to 1976. But Dana can’t control when she transports. The only thing she’s managed to figure out is that she time travels when Rufus’ life is in danger and sent back home when her life is threatened, and so far several years elapse between jumps. So how is she going to retrieve Kevin and where will he be by the time she gets back there?

Throughout the story slaves are sold, beaten, raped, and sometimes killed. Dana is determined to keep Rufus from following in his father’s footsteps as a “fair” but still cruel slave owner. Dana meets her ancestor Alice, a slave who will bear Rufus’ daughter, Hagar, and insure Dana’s heritage. When Alice is captured trying to escape, it is Dana who manages to keep her alive.

There is so much more to this story:  in the end Dana has to decide whether to let Rufus live or die and ultimately loses her arm. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you how.

I was so hooked on “Kindred” I finished it in less than two days. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction “with a twist.”

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