Friday, April 15, 2011

Musings: Kindred

Kindred
Kindred, by Octavia Butler, is the first book I ever read on my new Kindle (Sir Gawain, I've named him).  It was really hard for me to decide which book to buy.  I've downloaded some books from Project Gutenberg to read with Sir Gawain, but I didn't feel compelled to read any of them right now.  All the books I wanted to read were calling to me from my physical bookshelves.  But then I remembered Octavia Butler, that she was an author I've been wanting to read for quite a while.  And luckily for me, her famed Kindred is available on e-book!  And I'm so, so glad I've finally been introduced to this amazing author.

Octavia Butler died a few years ago, leaving a legacy as being one of the very first (and still part of a very small number) of female science fiction authors.  She's also one of thew few African-American science fiction authors.  She paved the way for so many other people, broke down many walls and helped to reshape a genre with her propensity to use fantastical elements in her stories, but never explain the science of how they happened.

In Kindred, for example, Dana's sudden and frequent time travel trips are never explained.  Why do they happen?  How do they happen?  Why do they start when they do and last as long as they do?  We never know.  And, if you're like me, you'll never care, either.  Because the time travel is just the vehicle to an incredible story.

In Kindred, Butler transports a Black woman from her life with her white husband in 1970s California to 1815 Maryland, where her ancestors worked as slaves on a plantation.  Dana doesn't know why it happens, but every time Rufus Weylin is in danger of losing his life- through drowning, fighting, falling down drunk in a pond, anything- she is transported back through time to save his life.  And she does, time and again, even as she sees him growing from a sweet boy to a tyrannical slaveholder.  And through these acts, and the amount of time Dana increasingly spends in the antebellum South, we readers get a first-hand look at slavery- how it was justified, how people shied away from the inhumanity of it, how the slaves handled themselves, how they were treated.  And, even more frighteningly, how immune you can become to something so horrible when it surrounds you so completely.  It can warp your thinking.

This book's true power lies in its ability to humanize every decision people in this book make.  Dana sees slaves try to run away and then be beaten almost to death because of it.  No one steps in to help them.  Dana doesn't judge these bystanders, though, but explains their decision, mostly stemming from self-preservation.  She sees a young boy grow up surrounded by an extended family of slaves who care for him and treat him like a son even as he begins to think they are less than him, even as he begins to consider them property.  And through it all, Dana must help Rufus Weylin, monster that he can be, because he fathers a line of children that eventually makes Dana's existence possible.  She also comes to realize that she does not hate him.  She likes him.  She thinks he has goodness in him, even as he rapes some slaves, sells off others and becomes increasingly possessive and paranoid.

There is so much complexity in this book.  The relationships that exist between the characters are so real, and they deal with true, mind-bendingly difficult problems.  What would it feel like to become the mistress of the man who sold your husband to a slaveholder in the deep south, just so he could have you to himself?  How would it feel to be so happy at the birth of a child, and then realize that child is not only  yours to nurture, but is legally considered someone else's property?  How damaging is it to a person's sense of self to go through life knowing that he is not in control of his destiny?  The book explores all these questions and so many more, all approached from the perspective of a modern Black woman descended from both slaves and slave owners.

It isn't as though I didn't realize how horrible slavery was until reading this book.  I knew.  But Kindred makes the experience so personal, so immediate, that it deepened my understanding.  Slavery is no longer a vague, historical concept in my head of something that happened and is over.  I see now just how deep the psychological ramifications can run.  To know, if you are of mixed race descent, that the woman most likely did not consent to the relationship.  But that if the rape hadn't occurred, you would not be alive today.  That's not easy to deal with even when you are removed from the situation, but Dana goes back and actually sees this happen to her own family.

Kindred doesn't take the easy way out of anything.  It's unflinchingly honest and wonderfully written.  I'm so glad to have discovered Octavia Butler, and I highly recommend this book to everyone.  There is so much here that I couldn't even touch upon, and so much that you should discover for yourself.

29 comments:

  1. I'm committed to reading this year for a book swap with Amanda from The Zen Leaf. It looks so good but I have so much on the TBR pile, I have to wait and it's very annoying! Oh, heck, I'm just going to put it on hold -- it's short, isn't it? And pretty soon I'll need a break from all these Persephones. You have convinced me.

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  2. I agree this is a wonderful story, and the way Rufus is portrayed is so nuanced and seems real. Although, I have to admit I would have liked him to have a better name! LOL

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  3. Karen - It *is* so good! And yes, it's pretty short (or at least reads very quickly) and just has so much going on in it. I think you'd really enjoy all the nuances.

    rhapsody - I don't know why that was his name, either! Even Dana thought it was unfortunate. It just means red-haired, so I don't know if there was any deeper meaning there except that he had kind of a temper...?

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  4. What a great review! I've been wanting to read this book for years! I really need to make it happen.

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  5. I read this book last year and enjoyed it! I really should read something else by her at some point. I should research where to go from here... :) Glad you enjoyed it!

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  6. Fantastic review Aarti! You were able to articulate so much more than I was on this book. It really is amazing and subtle, and it really opened up so much more history to me in a way nothing else ever has.

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  7. Vasilly - Based on our shared love of Sherman Alexie, I think you'd love it. Not because they have the same style, but because they really make you FEEL for the hopelessness of the situation in similar ways.

    Kailana - Yes, I want to read something else by her, too. So glad I was able to read this one. I didn't realize it was so old, actually! 35 years ago or so.

    Amanda - Yes, subtle is a very good way of putting it. You don't realize while reading it just how much it has impacted you until you realize that you're close to sobbing. It was so immediate.

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  8. I won this book last year in a blog contest but have not yet gotten around to reading it. In the meanwhile I've lent it out to a couple of times but neither of the people I gave it to were particularly impressed with the book, so I haven't felt a strong urge to read it myself. Though after reading your review my interest in this book is renewed. I'll definitely make an effort to read it sometimes soon.

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  9. Sounds like a tough book to read, and a good book to read. I would sure not have liked that man

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  10. I so wanted to love this, but it wasn't the read I wanted it to be. It felt obvious to me, and not, I don't know, it just didn't hit the emotional beats I wanted, and I felt unsatisfied at the end. I haven't read any more Octavia Butler yet; I do want to give her another try someday.

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  11. I think the premise of Kindred sounds fascinating. I have it on my TBR and will probably call it up to the major leagues in the summer. I like that a book can make you feel the desperation and hopelessness of a situation and I love that bit of connection with the characters.

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  12. Simcha - I know what you mean. There are a lot of books I am initially excited about but then don't go over well with friends, and so I get less excited about them. But as long as you have a a copy of the book, you can always pick it up :-)

    Blodeuedd - Yes, he was very hard to like. Especially with a name like Rufus.

    Jenny - I think in a way I can see what you mean about the obviousness, as how much more obvious can you get about the bad points of slavery than by putting a modern Black woman back in time? But I think for me, it just made slavery much more immediate and personal.

    April - Haha, I like the phrase "call it up to the major leagues" in relation to TBR placement :-)

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  13. I've heard great things about this book and the author, but I never knew that it's a scifi book. This one sounds like it covers and asks some very important questions using time-travel as a vehicle in which to explore them. And a book that makes slavery feel so personal - I have to read it! Beautiful review!

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  14. Aarti, I have read a lot of good things about this book, but your review did the trick. I am going to have to add this to my Kindle collection and make some room for it. It sounds fascinating, and the characters perspective sounds so unusual and unique. I also like that it asks pertinent questions and that there is moral ambiguity involved. Thanks for this fabulous review. I am off to get this one now!

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  15. Aths - It's not really what I would think of as science fiction as the science behind the time travel is never explained and is really just a vehicle for Dana getting back in time- she never really discusses the travel itself so much as the settings she lives in.

    Zibilee - Oh, I'm glad! I am so excited we both have Kindles and can (hopefully soon!) start swapping books in which we've highlighted lines and written notes for. It will be great for recommendations if that starts working!

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  16. Great review. I am embarrassed to say that I have never heard of this book -- I don't read much science fiction, but this sounds like it would be a great choice for me!

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  17. The only experience I have with Butler (so far) is the short story, "Bloodchild." But WHOA what an experience!!! I definitely want to read more of her work and Kindred is at the top of my list.

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  18. This sounds like such a fantastic, if difficult, book and I don't know why I haven't read it before - I have heard of it previously. I'm glad you liked it so much and you've definitely encouraged me to check it out for myself.

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  19. Col - That's not embarrassing! There are a ton of books out there that people love that I've never heard of. I honestly wouldn't let the sci fi bent throw you- it's really NOT big at all.

    Andi - Ooh, now I want to read "Bloodchild"! I will have to look into that. Thanks for the very intriguing heads up.

    Meghan - Oh, I'm glad. I think it was a very impactful read, and definitely still on my mind, weeks after reading it.

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  20. After reading your review, I'm so glad I found this book at the library sale a few months ago.

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  21. Love this review! I've been meaning to read Octavia Butler for a long time...but I think this has put me over the edge. I've put it on my TBR list.

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  22. Anna - Ooh, I hope you enjoy it!

    Emily - Thank you :-) I'm glad to be an enabler :-P

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  23. The only Butler I've read is Fledgling, and I always confuse its title with Kindred, because I think Kindred would've been a great title for that book.
    Fledgling was weird, but not in a bad way. It's just got all sort of creepy issues, and very unsparkly vampires.

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  24. Kindred was the first Butler I read. I was twelve. Now, I'm usually all for kids reading above their age level and reading difficult material but that book was just... Oh my god. So intense, so personal, so horrifying. I was too young.

    I didn't pick her up again until high school, but I'm so glad I did! Butler is definitely one of my favorite authors. Just so you know, Kindred is different from her other books. They're also great, just in different ways! I'd particularly recommend her Seed to Harvest series, starting with Wild Dawn. (Though all four books were collected in one volume after her death.)

    I haven't ever reread Kindred. A kind of dread fills me whenever I think about it, but I think it's about time. I'm twelve years older and wiser and will take much more from the book now, I think. :)

    I just started a project on my blog trying to make a list of historical fiction (mostly) to be able to create a timeline of Black history with fiction (and poetry and auto/biographies). I linked my name to the post if you'd like to take a look or add anything. I would really appreciate it!

    (I'm sorry if this is a total blogging faux pas! I've never promoted my blog before, though I know that promoting in comments is usually frowned upon. I'm a longtime follower of your blog and thought it was something you might be able to contribute to and then with this review of Kindred it seemed perfect!)

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  25. softdrink - Well, now I want to read Fledgling and see what you mean! Though isn't that about vampires? Not so into those...

    Jessica - Wow, I definitely agree 12 years old is too early for Kindred, and I can see why you don't want to read it again. I have that sort of feeling about Lord of the Flies. Not that I was too young when I read it but because it was just too much for me to read and digest at that time.

    That sounds like a great blogging project! The only book I can think of that I've read and you don't have on there is House Behind the Cedars. And I suppose The Help, though that was written by a Caucasian woman.

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  26. Aarti - Butting in on another comment, but the Fledgling vampires are like none you have seen, I promise!

    Thank you for the suggestions! I think I am willing to put non-Black authors on the list (Chesnutt himself was 7/8ths white, though he identified as black, I suppose because of the one drop rule) as long as the books are about African American experiences.

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  27. I've heard great things about this book, and seeing your review makes me want to read it even more. Plus it has that time travel element and I absolutely love books with time travel.

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  28. I absolutely loved this book and look forward more of Butler's work. The way she was able to see slavery through the eyes of those living through it was amazing. It's so interesting, what people can get used to as their everyday lives.

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  29. One of my favorite books that I read last year. I found it very intense, especially when Dana's husband gets more involved in what's happening.

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