Book Review: ‘Kindred’ by Octavia E. Butler

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Everyone wonders what it would be like to meet their ancestors. But imagine if you suddenly were transported through time and space and came face to face with one of them. What if you found yourself in the position of saving their lives (and by extension yours)? Now imagine that ancestor is someone you never could have dreamed of having, nor wanted, for an ancestor. This is the whole premise of Kindred by Octavia E. Butler.

Kindred has now been adapted for the small screen by FX and Hulu and all episodes will be available for streaming on December 13th. Before that, let’s look at the source material and see what exactly it’s all about.

[Warning: Spoilers from Octavia Butler’s Kindred are below!]

Confusion reigns in Kindred

Dana Franklin is a black woman living in 1976 California. On June 9th, 1976 she’s unpacking and moving into her new house with her husband, Kevin. Suddenly she is inexplicably transported to 1800s Maryland. Of course, she doesn’t know where and when she is. Still disorientated from the sudden change, all she knows is that she’s in the woods by a river.

Then she sees the child in the river, drowning. Without another thought, she dives in to save him. As she pulls him out and revives him, his parents are scared and confused and his father draws a gun on her. Dana is sure this is the end for her, then just as suddenly she’s back in her own home. While close to ten minutes passed for Dana, her husband insists she was gone for a matter of seconds.

Neither of them really understands what could possibly be happening, then suddenly, it’s happening again. Once again Dana mysteriously disappears from her own time and is sent to save the same boy’s life. This time she doesn’t disappear as soon as he’s safe. They have time to talk and Dana learns a few things about who he is and where she’s at.

When she realizes that she’s in slave territory and, obviously, doesn’t have papers to prove her freedom, Dana becomes very scared. She doesn’t know why she didn’t go back after saving the boy, Rufus, and she doesn’t know what to do next. Rufus doesn’t understand what’s happening either but he suggests that she heads to the cabin of a local free woman and her daughter, Alice before anyone finds her.

With more information comes some clarity

Dana ends up spending several hours in the past this time. She doesn’t return home until a man attacks her and she is sure she’s going to die again. When she comes back she learns that once again the time missing didn’t match and she’s only been gone a couple of minutes instead of hours.

But this time she’s learned a few things. Rufus’s last name is Weylin, and Dana remembers an old family bible that contained a family tree. At the top of that tree were Rufus Weylin and Alice Greenwood. She’s always known the name but no one has ever mentioned that Rufus was white. Learning that she has a white, slave-owning ancestor causes Dana some distress. 

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Before she can process this new information, she’s pulled back to Rufus. And this time Kevin hitches a ride with her. This leads to an interesting dynamic between the couple because Kevin is white. They’re forced to assume the master/slave disguise in order to be accepted.

As the weeks of this stay drag on the strain starts to show. When Dana finally does go back home Kevin is accidentally left behind and Dana can find no way to return to him on her own. Will Dana be called back to Rufus’ time again? Will she be able to find Kevin when she does? Is her entire life going to be spent keeping Rufus alive? And should she even bother? Dana struggles with all these questions and more over the span of a few weeks in the summer of 1976. 

The mechanisms of Dana’s time travel in Kindred

By her third trip, Dana finally thinks she’s figured out at least some of the why of her situation. She is called to Rufus when he’s in danger of dying. She returns home when her own life is threatened. For some reason, she’s become the protector of her bloodline. The bigger why eludes her but she decides to stop worrying about that and just do her best to keep him alive.

Of course, this opens up all kinds of interesting questions about the nature of time. After all, how did Rufus survive before Dana was born over 150 years later? Perhaps time isn’t as linear as we perceive it. Maybe everything on the timeline is happening at the same time but linear time is all we can comprehend. What if Dana chooses not to save Rufus? Will she cease to exist? The ideas are interesting and will give your mind a real workout if you take the time to ponder them.

Unfortunately, Butler chooses not to really delve into any of these questions. She poses the question early on about how someone must have saved Rufus before Dana was born, but never really provides an answer.

She also sidesteps the problem of what happens if Dana doesn’t save him by having Dana always choose to save him. Her early rationalization for saving him even though he’s a pretty awful person is that she can maybe change him. As it becomes more obvious that he’s not redeemable, she uses her own survival as a reason to protect him. While her decision does make sense, it also neatly avoids the paradox of what happens if he dies before the next generation is born.

Kindred is an interesting tale that raises difficult questions

Kindred raises some interesting and difficult questions but doesn’t really answer any in my opinion. All kinds of emotional and thorny questions about race, identity, and human nature are posed by Dana’s story. But she ultimately chooses to take the easiest route of self-preservation every time.

About the only truth that Dana seems to arrive at is “how easily people could be trained to accept slavery”. I would have liked it if Butler had tried to answer some of the questions her story gives rise to. But I suppose each reader will just have to try and find the answers on their own.

The story itself was interesting enough, although the time-travel paradox isn’t really resolved so that left more loose ends for me. Overall, the story was better at raising questions than answering them and is probably best read as a book group book so that the difficult concepts it contains can receive the consideration they deserve.

My Rating: 7/10

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler is available now and the FX series arrives on Hulu on December 13th. Do you plan on reading it? Let us know over on Twitter or The Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our review of the second novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife!

Book Review: The Subtle Knife: A His Dark Materials Novel

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I've always been a bookworm and fantasy is my favortie genre. I never imagined (okay, I imagined but I didn't think) that I could get those books sent to me for just my opinion. Now I am a very happy bookworm! @Lunagauthier19 on Twitter
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