In 1976, Dana has just moved into a quiet country house in California with her husband, Kevin. Their life as writers is relatively quiet, but Dana's comfort is shattered the first time she is sucked into the past, into the first decade of the 19th century, to rescue a drowning little boy. The early 19th century isn't a very pleasant place for a young black woman (with ostensibly no husband or owner to protect her) to be stuck. As she is repeatedly called back to the past, Dana begins to put together her strange situation, and realizes that the young boy she rescued, Rufus, is her own great-ancestor: a slave-owner in rural Maryland. She is sucked into the past every time his life is in danger, with, she guesses, the unique and trying job of keeping him alive long enough so that he can sire her great-great-great-grandmother.
Dana's adventure, a rather familiar scifi/time traveling narrative used to examine slavery, is a deeply psychological reading experience. Butler's prose is straightforward and the narrative deceptively simple, but it calls up serious and very interesting questions. As Dana watches her young ancestor grow up, she also watches him change from an open-minded little boy to an increasingly corrupted and antagonistic man. The abuses and corruptions open to a nineteenth-century male slave holder begin to take hold of him, and Dana is forced to ask herself whether she can actually justify helping keep him alive. When she is stuck in the past for long periods of time, she is necessarily trapped by slavery; on the occasion when Kevin (who is white) is brought to the past with her, she must deal with the psychological ramifications of their very different circumstances.
One of Butler's most powerful points is about the insidiousness of slave psychology. Not only does Dana begin to acclimate to the enslaved lifestyle, she continues to tolerate it as her bad treatment gradually escalates, and there comes a point when she is even an agent of its enforcement. My skin crept as I followed her logic in support of the status quo, and I began to feel oppressed by the hopeless and seemingly irrefutable situation I was reading about. I think this creeping sense of dread and disgust was the product of a very carefully and cleverly crafted book.
Lydia Sharp reviewed Kindred here a couple months ago. I already owned a copy and intended to read it at that point, but I thank her for inspiring me to bump it up on my list.
Kindred was first published in 1979, and I was really unhappy to learn after discovering this book that Octavia Butler died (rather tragically young) in 2006. But I'm glad I found her. After going to the Sirens Women in Fantasy conference recently, I've started to think really closely about the ways women have shaped the sff genre. There's a neat "period table" of great female sff writers of the last century ("great" being determined by awards and nominations) that has been some help to me as I try to understand the genre better. In case anyone else is interested in and wants to talk about the genre, please hit me up!