Friday, March 2, 2012

Thoughts on Kindred by Octavia Butler.

“...I realized that I knew less about loneliness than I had thought - and much less than I would know when he went away.”

I'm trying to get myself as prepared as possible for my new teaching assignment, and since I am jumping into the middle of a couple units on books I haven't read in ages. I managed to read all of Night by Elie Wiesel on Monday, and I spent Tuesday reading Kindred. It has been a busy week, so if my thoughts are a little scrambled, that's why. :)

I've read Kindred once before-in high school! When I was a student, this book was taught in a different class, so I was a little surprised, and excited to get the opportunity to teach it (I should note that I am teaching in the same district I graduated from).

Kindred is a novel that is hard to classify. I think it is often labeled as science-fiction, but I don't consider it under that genre. There is time travel in the novel, but since that isn't based on science, you technically can't classify it as such. :) But, it does have that other-wordly vibe and that one element takes the power of the story to another level.

The main character, Dana, lives in the 1970s with her new husband Kevin. It is important to the story to keep in mind that Dana is a black woman and Kevin is white. On her 26th birthday, she is suddenly overcome with dizziness and finds herself on a riverbank watching a young boy drown. Instincts kicking in, she pulls him out, administers CPR, and finds a gun pointed directly on her head. Again, she is overcome by dizziness and she finds herself back with her husband...but on the other side of the room.

Unsure of what happened to her, she tries to explain the experience to Kevin. Only a few hours later, she is again transported. This time she finds herself in a boy's bedroom as he sets his curtains on fire. It is only during this second experience that she realizes she has not only gone to a different place, but a different time. By asking the right questions, she learns that the boy she has saved this time was the same, and that he is her many times great-grandfather. She has been sent back to the antebellum south and to a plantation owned by the boy's father.

Butler does a marvelous job of developing the purpose for Dana to time travel. The boy, Rufus, needs her help to stay alive. Whenever his life is threatened, she appears to save him from danger. At different points in his life, Dana reappears just in time to save his life. She knows that to let him die before he fathers her own distant relative condemns her to an "nonexistence" of sorts (think the grandfather paradox-you can't change the past without harming your own future). So after she saves dear Rufus from whatever idiotic thing he did, she has to wait to return to her own time, and that only happens when her own life is threatened.

It is an interesting novel and one filled with so much that I'm going to discuss with the kids (I will be discussing the last portion of the novel with them, as they've read the rest with the teacher I'm replacing). Besides discussing the time travel, the relationship Dana has with Kevin, and Dana's connection to Rufus, there is also the huge issue of race-in both the 70s era of Dana and Kevin and the era of slavery. Because of the role Dana plays in Rufus' life, she is given different privileges from the other slaves. It was a stark contrast to my recent reading of Roots. Dana also has some interesting insights about how quickly people can fall into acceptance of slavery because the system works to insure that. I think that will be an enlightening discussion to have with my students.

I'm looking forward to talking about this one with the kids, and I can't wait to talk about the end of the novel. And if you've put this one off because you thought it was a science-fiction, don't be scared of it. The author once said she considered it historical fiction, so give it a try. :)

“Better to stay alive," I said. "At least while there's a chance to get free." I thought of the sleeping pills in my bag and wondered just how great a hypocrite I was. It was so easy to advise other people to live with their pain.”


  1. This sounds like something I would enjoy reading. And I can definitely see how you could really get some good discussions going with the class!

  2. If your review hadn't already convinced me to read this one, the quote you posted at the end would have. This sounds like a truly awesome read and I can imagine how teaching this one might be so exciting. Good luck with it!

  3. It's such a fantastic book. I read it last year I think and was blown away. Seeing the contrast of modern on the old southern world just made it work in a way that other novels about that time period didn't for me.

  4. I admit I hadn't even heard of this text until I read your review (the side effect of my British education), but it sounds like a fabulous novel. I, too, love that quote at the end of the post.

  5. I've loved some of Butler's short stories, so I'm excited to jump into this one at some point. When I finish up some review obligations might be a good time!

  6. I have this on my list to read sometime. I don't know when I'll have the time, though, but I keep reading such good things about it that I'll have to make the time at some point.