REVIEW: Kindred, by Octavia Butler

So far this term, I’ve had to read about a billion books for my Fiction for Young Readers class. That’s why so many of my reviews have been (and will be) YA reads. But there have been two books that I’ve read for my [adult] Fiction class, and they have both wormed their way into my list of favourites. This one was the perfect thing to read on my trip to Wales this weekend, even if the subject didn’t quite align. A good book is a good book, and this was a good book kind of trip, so Kindred fit the bill.

The (Spoiler-Free) Summary

Dana, a black woman, and her husband Kevin, a white man, are moving on her twenty-sixth birthday in 1976 when she begins to feel strange. She thinks she is about to pass out, but instead she finds herself in the middle of the woods somewhere. There is a child drowning nearby, and she saves him. Then, when held at gunpoint, she gets the same funny feeling and ends up back in her living room. She was only gone for a few seconds despite being in the woods for several minutes.

As the boy she saved grows up, the episodes continue, and Dana discovers she is being pulled back by the child’s needs to the year 1819, where she has a very different set of things to fear than she did in 1976. As she is pulled back time and time again, Dana and her husband fight to figure out how they can build a life together amidst things like slavery and hatred — things they had always considered to be ancient history — while still managing to ensure the future they both hold dear.

Spoilers ahead. Skip to my rating to avoid them.

The Good Stuff

So much about this story is good, but let’s start with the characters. Dana is such a strong person, and you get a really good sense of her inner struggle as she copes with how to survive in 1819 while not accepting life as a slave. As the reader, you find yourself empathizing so well with her that you almost want her to just blend in and keep her head down in order to spare her some pain, yet also wanting her to stand up to the horrors that the slaves face. This tension and POV is really key for me as a white reader, because while it’s easy now to recognize slavery as a terrible and awful thing it’s hard to identify with it the way other readers of a similar background to Dana’s might, and having this perspective of narration helped me tap into that empathy in a completely new way.

Kevin is a great character to me because it was interesting to see how easily he could have slipped into the dominant, oppressive role, even in Dana’s life. His re-entrance into 1976 life was fascinating, and I loved the way Butler covered all his little moments of culture shock. Also, the description of Kevin in this book was fantastic. I really felt like I could see him, and that’s not an easy thing to achieve for me.

Lastly, there was the character of Rufus. I have never felt so protective of and drawn to a character yet apprehensive and wary of him at the same time, and I think that characterization was really important to our understanding of Dana as well. Here you have this kid that is largely innocent and mostly a good person but has every possible negative influence in the world, and it creates this really dynamic and mercurial character that you at least care about if not for.

I think it’s also worth mentioning the genre of this book. While there is a time-slip element that might make some consider it science fiction (and, in fact, Butler is listed on Wikipedia as a science fiction author), I feel like it falls into the same kind of no-man’s-land as Outlanders, which I would consider a historical romance. In fact, at HarperImpulse where I currently work, we have a category for time-slip romances. Whether or not this could be considered a romance is a different question (one that you’ll find at the bottom of this post), but I don’t really think it’s science fiction since the unknown element simply serves as a tool for delivering the primary narrative: the historical fiction element. In fact, we don’t even know if there is science, magic, or anything else like that involved, so how can we call it science fiction?

The last thing I want to mention is Butler’s description of pain. In my experience as both a reader and a writer, it’s hard without outlandish simile and overly dramatic language to describe intense pain, but Butler manages to do it brilliantly. Hats off.

I could go on and on about good things in this book, but I won’t. Just read it for yourself and then we can gush about it together.

The Bad Stuff

A note about the language: it made me uncomfortable at times, but I think it was appropriate to the time and characters.

The only thing I had a problem with in this book was how it felt very pedagogical. The facts about slavery and medicine and other related issues weren’t always elegantly placed, and I often felt that Butler wrote this with the intention of teaching people about slavery rather than telling people a story. I don’t have any problem with a book that teaches about slavery, but it needs to be narrative-driven rather than information-driven, like Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. The plot of this book was fantastic, I just think the details could have been woven in more subtly, or at least presented differently.

My Recommendation

AMAZING BOOK. Read immediately. There is a lot of mature content, so it may not be well-suited for young teenagers, but mature high-schoolers or university-aged students might benefit from this book as an instructional tool, which would also help excuse the sometimes pedagogical tone.

My Rating

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4 out of 5 stars

Discussion Questions: (Spoiler-Free)

  1. What do you think of Rufus and Dana’s relationship? What kind of relationship (brother-sister, son-mother, master-slave, friend-friend, etc.) do you think it most emulates? Why do you think that is?
  2. What is the biggest effect of Kevin’s whiteness in this story? How does that affect his relationship with Dana?
  3. What is the most important relationship in the novel? Could this novel be considered a romance? Why or why not?
  4. Would you classify this novel as science fiction? Why or why not?
  5. What do you think Dana and Kevin’s life will be like after the end of the story? What kind of effect will their experience have had on them as a couple, and as individuals?
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