Author: Octavia E. Butler
Published: June 1979
Genre: Narrative Fiction, Science Fiction
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stays grow longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
My Biggest Takeaways: Slavery & the Contaminating Effect of Racism
As is characteristic of stories about slavery, the primary theme of Kindred is the horrific legacy of slavery in America. The horrors of slavery are numerous and despicable; there’s the physical violence inflicted upon enslaved people in the forms of beatings, back-breaking labor, rape, etc.; there’s the psychological violence that forces slaves to accept the status quo, such as the mere prospect of more violence and the threat of having family members sold away; and so much more that would take too long to go into.
However, I think an important aspect of the story, beyond the various types of violence that the enslaved people endure, is how our environments impress on people from a very early age — how racism is learned and transmitted and contaminates people. As much as Kindred is about Dana Franklin, the protagonist, seeing the horrors of slavery firsthand, an underlying theme is how racism choked the potential out of Rufus Weylin, her distant ancestor, and caused him to “break bad.”
In the beginning, Rufus is an impressionable youth, who is ignorant about the degrading nature of the n-word and is just as afraid of his slaveowner father, Tom Weylin, as anyone on the plantation would’ve been (Rufus suffered repeated physical abuse from Tom Weylin). We perceive him as innocent, despite him growing up in a painfully racist environment. Dana is aware that Rufus will become the plantation’s owner eventually; however, she believes that, since Rufus is impressionable and seems to respect/listen to Dana, she can help educate him and guide him along a more compassionate, slightly “less racist” path.
However, as the story unfolds, the reader witnesses Rufus’s transformation in real time, as he evolves into a manipulative, repugnant slave master. Rufus has feelings for Alice, another of Dana’s distant ancestors who is technically a freewoman throughout the first parts of the novel; Alice is not shown to reciprocate those feelings. As Rufus grows older, and as his upbringing continues to stunt his emotional maturity, he learns to weaponize his social standing to take advantage of Alice, whom he rapes under the guise of “love.” He continues to use the threat of rape as well as manipulation to get what he wants and gain control over the people he claims to “love.” He lies to Dana about mailing the letters she wrote to her husband Kevin, as well as sell a slave that flirts with Dana, to retain control of Dana. Rufus also pretends to sell his and Alice’s children to regain control over her after she attempts escape (this ends in tragedy). And as Rufus becomes more and more repulsive, Dana begins to realize that there simply is no saving a man who has been so heavily shaped by such a corrupt system.
Kindred might be one of the best books I’ve ever read at any point in time. The characters are layered and complex, the plot is harrowing yet intriguing, and the book is incredibly well written. This originally was my introduction to Octavia Butler’s writing; needless to say, I was excited to read more.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
5 stars out of 5
Did you read this novel? If so, did you enjoy it? What elements of the story resonated with you the most?