BoatGirl’s #CBR4 Review #51: Kindred by Octavia Butler
I read Kindred after reading the Scruffy Rube’s review last week https://cannonballread4.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/the-scruffy-rubes-cbr4-review-21-kindred/ . This is a fantastic book and I’m really glad to have been introduced to this author. Although Octavia Butler was a famous scifi author, Kindred is actually more fantasy, as it never even attempts to explain the central conceit of the story – that heroine Dana keeps being pulled 150 plus years back in time to save the life of one of her ancestors and can only return to her own time when she believes her life to be in danger. What makes the story so powerful is that Dana is a modern black woman from 1976 happily married to a white man, while her ancestor Rufus is a white slave owner in the antebellum south. Each period of time Dana (and her husband Kevin) winds up in the past is marred by the tragedy of slavery and the casual, unthinking cruelty of people like Rufus.
Knowing that unless Rufus survives, she won’t exist, Dana can’t simply kill him and return home. Plus, through interactions with the slaves on his plantation, she comes to have conflicting thoughts – if he does die, will all the slaves be sold away from their families? Will their lives be even worse than before?
Dana was a really relatable character trying to make the best of a harsh world where the laws were stacked against her. Watching this modern, independent woman slowly beaten down and cowed makes it easier to understand how something like slavery could come to exist in the first place. People weren’t confronted with a yes/no situation where they were given simple choices, there were multiple complex responses to everything they did, just like now.
Strangely, I found Rufus to be the most interesting character. Even though he was a drunk, spoiled, lazy, mean, slave beating jerk from 18whatever, he actually seemed very modern to me. He seemed like every wife beating guy who sees his wife and kids as “his” and doesn’t understand that other people’s feelings are just as important as his. The laws may change, but people don’t. It was interesting to watch him struggle with his feelings for Dana and for the other black people he had been raised with, but had been raised to look down on.
One thing that it made me wonder about was if the casual cruelty was related simply to the harsh survival conditions encountered at the best of times. What I mean by that is there was no anesthesia at all until 1846, infant and maternal mortality rates were staggeringly high, “medical treatment” consisted of leeches and bleeding, and dental care consisted of ripping rotting teeth out before they killed you. A tiny paper cut could get infected, leading to gangrene, requiring amputation of a limb while you were awake and held down by a few strong acquaintances. With that sort of life, wouldn’t everyone have been in pain pretty much non-stop, even the wealthy and powerful? And if so, why would they even stop to think before whipping someone? What’s a little more pain when everyone is in constant pain already?
If you have any Southern apologist (or neo-nazi or kkk or whatever) types in your family, this would be a great book to give them for Christmas. It might actually open their eyes a little.
For normal people, it’s an important read to learn about history (it’s apparently very well researched) and to make you think more about how normal people can get trapped into different mindsets.