Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

The trouble began long before June 9, 1976, when I became aware of it, but June 9 is the day I remember.  It was my twenty-sixth birthday.  It was also the day I met Rufus--the day he called me to him for the first time.

Dana Franklin passes out in 1976 and wakes up in early 19th century Maryland, just in time to save a young boy from drowning.  The episode lasts for maybe fifteen minutes, but when she returns, only a few seconds have passed.  When she's "called" again, it's 1819, and the boy is a little older, and about to accidentally burn his house down.  This time, Dana stays a little longer--and discovers, at the point of a gun, that she only returns to her own time when her life is in jeopardy.

Of course, death isn't the only frightening prospect for a black woman in the antebellum South.  Each time Dana is called to help Rufus--a man whom, she discovers, is her distant ancestor--she finds herself deep in Plantation life, not a slave exactly, not that those sort of technicalities matter.  Even when she manages to bring her husband, Kevin, along with her, they must disguise their marriage--Kevin is white--and pose as master and slave.  Each time she faces the possibility that she'll never return.

Kindred is a better thought experiment than a novel.  It has a very cinematic sense of plot--in fact, I'm surprised no one's tried to make a film out of it yet.  The nature of Dana's time traveling means that every chapter has to end with a cliffhanger.  The stakes are kept constantly high--when Kevin fails to reach Dana before she "disappears" back to the modern day, he is essentially trapped until Rufus calls her back, and spends five lonely years stuck in the 19th century.  Yet it seems to me Dana never coheres as a character rather than an archetype, Kevin, less so.  Furthermore, the novel's use of history often seems flatly encyclopedic.

The best thing about the novel is the relationship between Dana and her ancestor, Rufus.  Dana is cast into the role of protector for Rufus, and she saves him from certain death multiple times, but she's unable to help him grow into someone who leads a life contrary to his family and his society.  As a result, Rufus is alternately cruel and needy towards Dana--he can not live without her, but he doesn't have access to the kind of respect and gratitude that need requires.  He gives her gifts, then has her whipped, pleads with her not to leave him, then backs his pleas up at the point of a rifle.  Their relationship mirrors that between Rufus and Alice, the slave who will give birth to Dana's family line.  In the 20th century, Butler suggests, Rufus might have been able to pursue Alice romantically in the way that Kevin pursues Dana; in the antebellum South Alice's child will inevitably be a product of rape.

Butler does a good job, without excusing Rufus' cruelties, of showing the way in which he himself is limited and malformed by the "peculiar institution."  (Spoiler alert!)  When Dana is called for the last time, it is because Alice has hanged herself.  Rufus, distraught, turns his sexual advances on Dana, and though she has never confessed their kinship, the possibility of incest underlines the destructiveness of slavery on family relationships, a destructiveness which necessitates that Dana kill the man who she has toiled against her will to protect.

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