In Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, Dana is a young African American woman living in 1976 California with her white husband. Starting on her twenty-sixth birthday, she gets sucked back in time and across the country to the antebellum South by Rufus Weylin, her distant ancestor and a young white slave owner. Rufus calls for Dana whenever his life is in danger, starting with a near drowning when he is a young boy and continuing throughout his life. But Dana gets trapped in the South as a slave, sometimes for just a few minutes, sometimes for extended periods of time. She has to learn to live on the Weylin plantation as a slave, and develops a terrible kind of relationship with Rufus. Because for all that she hates her life as a slave, if she wants to ensure that her family exists in the future, she also has to ensure that Rufus lives to father a child on a free woman named Alice.
One of the hardest things about this book is defining it. The copy I have (a former library copy) is labeled both Science Fiction and African-American Literature. Butler herself called it "a grim fantasy." Except for the time travel element, it could even be Historical Fiction. What struck me, though, was that it is (again, except for time travel) a slave narrative. Slave narratives are the autobiographical accounts of life in slavery and were often published by abolitionist groups to educate the public about the horrors of slavery. It has been years since I read one, but the few that I read stick in my mind, particularly Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.
It seems to me that what Butler has done is taken the traditional slave narrative and put it in the voice of a modern woman. Which is brilliant. Slave narratives can be hard to read, not just for their tragic contents but because of their old-fashioned writing style. By putting these words in the mouth of a woman whose life echoes my own much more closely, it just made the horror of what I was reading even more real. Isn't that strange? That this fictional account, which includes something as out there as time travel, can feel more real and immediate than the true story of a woman, written in her own hand?
It helps, of course, that Butler is a writer of such skill. For all that I feared for Dana and grieved for the atrocities committed against her and the other plantation slaves, I never wanted to walk away from this book. It was just so well written, so simple and beautiful, I just wanted to keep going.
Read this book. It doesn't matter whether you have to go to a section of the library or bookstore you never go to (whether that means sci-fi or Africa-American literature). Just find a copy and read it.
Buy Kindred on Amazon.