There’s something captivating about the first few pages of Butler’s book. Within moments, just as you get comfortable with the characters and 1979 Californian setting, you are hurled (along with the protagonist Dana Franklin) across time and space to an antebellum riverside where a young boy’s life is in jeopardy. Despite the inexplicable and jarring nature of this time travel, both the audience and the character must commit to the circumstances of this situation: hoping to save a life because our natural human impulses command it.
But Kindred has more than just a clever opening. As the story unfolds, Dana must consider the complex interplay of love for family and social justice. For a twentieth century African-American citizen to dive into the world of slavery with perpetual fear and palpable anger in every heartbeat–all for the sake of her white, slave-owning ancestor–is to experience history afresh. Butler manages to not just present or explore an often silently accepted splotch on our American history, but to live it, to battle it and to grudgingly appreciate parts of it.
Few authors have the skill to make this rigorous inhabitation of history (mixed with a healthy-dollop of science fiction) work, but Butler makes it seem effortless. Despite the extraordinary circumstances, the characters (both historical and contemporary) seem grounded in genuine humanity and they are easy to relate to, regardless of your own ethnicity. Our emotions are as conflicted as Dana’s, our experience as complex and uncomfortable. The deeper we dig into the book the better we can appreciate issues not just of race, but of honesty and ignorance, violence and love. That’s precisely the kind of work that both my students and I can sink our teeth into with relish.