In Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979), a modern black woman’s ancestors haunt her, calling her back to them for assistance. Dana comes to terms with her own family’s history and comes to understand firsthand just what her predecessors dealt with. Kindred is not a pleasant story. After all, it deals with slavery and the question of what makes freedom. Yet, Dana was an honorable woman, and I felt her struggle as she came to terms with her family’s past.
Twenty-something Dana Franklin is moving into a new apartment with her husband when she gets dizzy. The next thing she knows, she is transported to early nineteenth-century Maryland where she is treated as the color of her skin would dictate: she becomes a black slave. She returns to the present, and over the course of a few (modern) weeks, she is transported back in history, sometimes staying moments, other times staying months.
I felt the portrayal of ante-bellum America was very realistic, and Dana’s worries and fears were spot-on. Despite the fact that the novel was a science-fiction fantasy, something I normally would not pick up, I was completely drawn in to the story. I wanted to know what would happen to Dana, and how she would escape the past.
In that respect, I think Kindred is about how we never truly can escape the past. Dana was living among her own ancestors, dealing with the same things they dealt with in slavery. Fully understanding them meant leaving a part of herself behind (her arm). Ms Butler did a wonderful job with this novel: it was cohesive in that nothing, no character or scene, was extraneous to the whole of the novel. I loved it.
I wondered how I could possibly deal with a similar anachronism. My ancestors were not in slavery but nonetheless dealt with difficult times and issues, some left Ireland amid famine, some were Mormons fleeing persecution. If I truly understood what my ancestors dealt with, how would I be changed?
Obviously there are serious differences. My own Mormon ancestors were persecuted and driven from their homes because they chose to follow a certain faith. On the other hand, nineteenth-century blacks were enslaved, raped, beaten, and horribly abused simply because of the color of their skin and their parentage, which they obviously could not choose. Nevertheless, as Dana Franklin came to terms with her past, I found myself wondering how I would have reacted to meeting my own predecessors and dealing with the situations they dealt with.
Ultimately, Dana’s story seems universal, since all might be affected in some way from learning of our past. Kindred is also a necessary story in the context of the African-American heritage. It’s a fascinating modern classic, and I couldn’t put it down.