Wow. Just wow.
This book is a powerhouse. I think it knocked the wind out of me a half dozen times.
A black woman named Dana lives in 1976 California until one day she is pulled from her world into the pre-Civil War Antebellum South and intervenes to save the life of a small white boy and son of a plantation owner, Rufus Weyland. In a period that is roughly two weeks in her contemporary time and more than a decade in the 19th century, Dana is repeatedly thrown between time and place to help save her familial lineage again and again.
The layers: so many. This book comments on race relations, slavery, gender dynamics, the unbreakable spirit and human nature on a large scale. To start with the obvious: when Dana is stuck in the Antebellum South, she lives amongst the slaves. From just looking at her, it is assumed that she is a slave, probably a runaway, and the very first thing that happens to her is she meets the barrel end of a rifle pointed at her simply for saving a small white boy’s life. There is little course for her to take other than to become one of the household staff. Large portions of this book are a slave narrative and it’s an eye-opening account that is so painful but necessary to digest. We see the economic system that feeds the cruelty of the master, the brutality of physical punishments, and the strength of the community amongst the slaves. We see love growing, friendships forming, trust broken and families ripped apart. But what’s the most compelling to me is the minutia of these relationships: what it is to be “favored” among the slaves, and how the dynamic of the white/black relationship alters when feelings and convenience get involved.
Dana, in 1976, is married to a white man, Kevin. In a brief interlude we get flashbacks to their developing relationship and how the people closest to them reacted to their interracial engagement. It’s almost an aside it’s so brief, but very effective in paralleling what we see when Kevin is dragged into one of the time-traveling excursions. Again, we see Dana accept the only option she has: that she is a slave traveling with her white master and while no one will speak of it out loud, it is widely assumed she is his bed warmer. In some ways, this makes her place much safer, though the compromises to her pride are certainly deep. But new dangers also arise, not the least of which being the wife of Mr. Weyland feels a special jealousy towards Dana. At every turn this book deals with the characters as they relate to the circumstances they are placed in, resulting in a constant series of revelations of what each would do when they find themselves in strange territory.
There is certainly an awareness of gender dynamics in the book - both in the hints about her struggling writing career in comparison to her husbands thriving one, but also in the type of slave work she is given, the continual questions to her single status, how women are seen as bearers of children and little beyond that, etc. This is not surprising coming from a female author and most of it is tied to the time periods in which the story take place. Still, it’s good to see these things are not just taken for granted as assumed.
But what I found to be compelling above all else is the struggling and developing relationship between Dana and Rufus Weyland. She is repeatedly sent - literally through time - to save his life and as he ages, their relationship dynamic does so as well. To me, it all comes back to the idea that it’s easier to vilify a group, an "other", but once you know a person within the group, you start to examine the prejudices you hold and where they come from. And I think that works both ways in this story. Rufus has much to learn from Dana about freedom, equality, humanity and in general the ways of the developing world. He is a terrible, selfish, whiny white boy; but, he has legitimate fears and feelings as well. What struck me again and again is the overly fair treatment the white slave owner characters are given throughout. Never are they completely redeemable, never are they portrayed as moral, upstanding citizens. But there is a recognized understanding of how and why they behave as they do. It’s not justification for the grotesquery of the slave trade, but its also far from the gross generalization that all white southerners were needlessly abusive and cruel.
Finally, as brought up in the Emma post, Dana is not perfect, but she is certainly complex. She is not the black angel come to save Rufus from this white supremacist upbringing. But, like many of us, she continues to do her best to look for ways to improve the lives of those around her and when she makes mistakes, they are almost all well-intentioned but naive.
As a middle-class raised, midwestern white girl, this book is at many points uncomfortable to read as I feel my liberal white guilt consuming my everything. Which in my mind, makes it all the more necessary to do so. I would recommend Kindred to anyone and everyone. Let’s all work a little harder to understand each other, shall we?
by Octavia E. Butler