Dana starts this book by saying, "I lost an arm on my last trip home" (Prologue.1) and pretty much stays this blunt and direct for the rest of the book. It's actually this same directness that often gets her in trouble with white slave masters in 1815 Maryland. It's great for us readers, though, because her tone helps make this book really easy to read and get into.
Critics have had a tough time categorizing Kindred ever since the book first came out. Octavia Butler has gone on record saying that she thinks of the book as belonging to the fantasy genre. Other people call it a sci-fi book because Butler is mostly known for her sci-fi fiction. There are even others who just want to call the book "literature" because it deals with heavy themes like race and misogyny in a complex way. So that's why it's best to just hedge your bets and call it, like we do, "sci-fi fantasy literature." Everybody happy?
Kindred is an old-fashioned word that means family members or blood relations. It's especially important to the themes of this novel because the black female protagonist Dana is actually related to the white male slave-owner Rufus. There are several times in this book when Dana wants to let Rufus die, but she can't because she might stop existing if Rufus doesn't grow up to have children. The term "kindred" is also very common in the old American South where most of this book's plot takes place. Ultimately, the title reminds us of how interconnected our personal histories are with the history of our country, even though we might not always think about it.
I looked back at the brick building of the Historical Society, itself a converted early mansion. "If we told anyone else about this, anyone at all, they wouldn't think we were so sane."
"We are," he said. "And now that the boy is dead, we have some chance of staying that way." (Epilogue.27-28)
The end of this book basically tells us that neither Kevin nor Dana (nor the book, really) feels remorse over the fact that Dana has murdered Rufus. There have been many times when Octavia Butler or Dana have tried to build our sympathy for Rufus. But at the end of the day the message seems to be, "Hey, this dude had a bunch of chances to do the right things and be a better person. But he didn't take them, so he had to die." Now Kevin and Dana just want to rebuild their lives and try to move past Rufus and the world he represented. But that's just the thing, folks. Can America and its people ever move beyond slavery? Can they ever forget that their country's wealth and power in the world is based massively on hundreds of years of slave labor? These are the kinds of questions Octavia Butler wants you to ask.
There's a pretty big contrast between the two main settings of this book. But, truth be told, Octavia Butler doesn't really spend a lot of time describing her setting. She's much more interested in plot and dialogue, which is one reason why the book is so fast-paced and exciting. The closest thing you really get to a description of 1976 California comes indirectly in passages like this: "A couple of Kevin's friends came over on the Fourth of July and tried to get us to go to the Rose Bowl with them for the fireworks" (6.3.1). The mention of modern stuff like the Rose Bowl and halftime fireworks helps contrast the modern world with the old one.
When Dana travels back in time, she briefly describes the way she goes from the comfort of her home to a more natural setting, saying, "Suddenly, I was outdoors kneeling on the ground beneath trees. I was in a green place. I was at the edge of a woods" (1.10). Again though, this is really the most description of setting you're likely to find in this book. The main focus here is on time, not necessarily place.
As far as literature goes, Kindred is as accessible as it gets. The sentence structure is clear, the writing is readable, and the plot is fast-paced. There's not a whole lot in this book that should trip you up, aside from some of violence that's depicted. Just set some time aside and let yourself get lost in the magical (and turbulent) world of Octavia Butler.
There's a reason why literature and sci-fi fans both love Octavia Butler. It's because she can convey great images and ideas in straightforward and easily readable language. In the opening scene of this book, for example, Dana says, "But before [Kevin] could come to me, I had to convince the police that he did not belong in jail. That took time" (Prologue.3). There's no unnecessary ornament here. Dana (or Octavia) is always quick to get to the point. She uses few adjectives and even fewer adverbs.
You wouldn't think a stick would be the most effective weapon for a slave in the American South. But as Dana points out at one point, "I stumbled over a stick that lay in the road and first cursed it, then picked it up. It felt good in my hand, solid. A stick like this had saved me once. Now, it quenched a little of my fear, gave me confidence. I walked faster, moving into the woods alongside the road as soon as I passed Weylin's fields" (4.12.33). Let's not forget that Dana also uses a stick to knock out a white man who tries to rape her on her second trip back in time. In a world where everyone is trying to beat, kill, or rape her, Dana needs to use anything she can get her hands on to protect herself. The stick in this sense helps symbolize her resourcefulness and her ability to think quickly in crisis situations.
It's not going too far to say that white slave masters treat black people like animals in this book. And you can see this in the way white men will use dogs to hunt down runaway slaves. Dana finds this out the hard way when she tries to run away from the Weylin plantation and realizes, "Another dog found me later, though. It came racing toward me through a field and over a rail fence, barking and growling." Luckily, she uses a trusty stick (again with the stick) to repel the dog, adding, "I turned to meet [the dog] almost without thinking, and clubbed it down as it lunged at me" (4.12.35).
Later in the book, Alice Greenwood is badly wounded from the bites she got while trying to run away with her husband Isaac. The only reason any white people have a problem with this, though, is because Alice's money value as a slave gets lowered when she can't walk properly anymore.
One of the things that the white people in this book really hate about Dana is the fact that she knows how to read and write better than many of them can. Tom Weylin is especially resentful toward her education because he's worried that educated black people will eventually realize that they have the power to throw off their shackles. That's why he's always quick to say things like, "Didn't I tell you I didn't want you reading!" (3.8.87) when he catches Dana with a book in her hands. He even gives her a brutal whipping when he catches her with a book in the cookhouse. Dana is just lucky that Tom doesn't realize she was actually teaching other black slaves to read and write. As she reminds us, "I hoped Nigel had the sense to get the pencil off the table" (3.8.88). She and Tom both know that educating black slaves is a sure-fire way to give them a sense of independence.
This book makes it very clear from the first lines that we're dealing with a first person narrator who will be at the center of the story we're about to read. The first line of the book reads, "I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm" (Prologue.1). From this point on, we follow Dana as she tells us the story of how she suddenly travelled back in time to 1815 Maryland to meet her ancestor Rufus, a white boy whose father runs a plantation with slaves. Our only access to characters' thoughts and actions are filtered through Dana's mind and her perceptions of the outside world. She's also our central point of sympathy. The fact that she's a good person makes it a lot easier to like her, too.
The name of this stage is fitting, since Rufus magically "calls" Dana back in time to come save him whenever he's about to die. The first time he does this, Dana doesn't really know what's going on. All she sees is a little kid who's drowning in a river. She does the right thing and saves him, but little does she know that she has travelled back in time to 1815 Maryland. Slavery is a big thing in the Southern states and Dana has do to a lot of things to avoid being killed or whipped. She knows that she needs to help Rufus grow up and have children because he is her ancestor. No Rufus means no Dana.
Dana keeps returning to the past every time Rufus needs his life saved. As he gets older, Dana tries to make sure he'll grow up to be a kinder person than his father. For a while, it seems as though the plan is working. Rufus and Dana form a deep bond and Rufus seems to respect Dana as a human being. Plus there's the added advantage of Dana's white husband Kevin coming back in time and keeping Dana safe by claiming to be her owner.
Things go sideways when Rufus' father catches Dana teaching some of his slaves to read and write. He throws her on the ground and whips her so badly she thinks she's going to die. She transports back to 1976 and leaves her husband Kevin behind in the past. By the time she's able to track Kevin down again, he's five years older and traumatized from living in the past for so long. Worse yet, Rufus has grown up into a total jerk who's nearly as bad as his father. He also wants Dana to help him have sex with one of his slaves named Alice. Dana is repulsed, but she knows she needs to help in order for Rufus and Alice to have kids and for her (Dana) to be born.
Things get out of control on Dana's final trip to the past. Alice has killed herself after learning that Rufus has sold her children to a slave trader. The sad truth is that Rufus only told her this to get her back in line. He hasn't sold the kids at all, and now Alice is dead. Rufus tries to comfort himself by grabbing Dana in his library and trying to rape her. Luckily for Dana, her ancestor Hagar has already been born and she no longer has any reason for keeping Rufus alive.
Dana decides to settle things with Rufus once and for all by killing him with a knife. But now what? She's a black woman living in slave times who just killed a white guy. It's enough to make her think she's going to die. And guess what? That's just the kind of thought she needs to travel back home to 1976. Once she reappears in 1976, she gets her arm crushed inside a wall of her house. It's a huge loss, but she's still happy to be rid of Rufus forever.
Our narrator Dana opens the book by saying that her arm was crushed on her "last trip home." It's only a few pages later that we find out Dana has been travelling back in time to visit her ancestor, a white slave-owner named Rufus Weylin. Dana visits Rufus at first when he's just a little boy, and she realizes that she only travels back in time at moments when she needs to save his life. Dana doesn't necessarily want to save someone who'll grow up to be a white slave-owner. But, then again, Rufus is her ancestor and she needs to keep him alive until he has kids if she plans on ever being born herself.
By the time Rufus Weylin has grown up, he's given Dana a lot of reasons to let him die. For starters, he sends Dana to work in the cornfields and has her whipped when she talks back to him. Plus he asks for her help in raping another slave named Alice. The tension builds as Rufus grows older and settles into his role as a white slave owner. Dana hoped that she could raise him to be a nice person, but it looks like she failed. Now something's gotta give.
Eventually, Rufus' cruelty gets so bad that he lies to his slave Alice about selling her children to a slave trader. He's only saying this to show Alice who's boss, but Alice takes the news so hard that she hangs herself. Even after she's dead, Rufus blames her for what has happened. He says that things never would have gotten so out of hand if Alice had just done as he said. When this is all over, Dana finds Rufus hanging out in his library. He tries to grab her and rape her and Dana decides she's had enough. She grabs a knife and stabs Rufus to death.
Dana returns to her home in 1976 only to have her arm crushed inside one of the walls of her house. You'll probably remember this incident as the opening scene of the novel. After she gets out of the hospital, she and her husband Kevin take a trip to Maryland to visit the site of the old Weylin plantation. They learn from an old newspaper article that the house burned down on the day Dana killed Rufus. Dana realizes that a slave named Nigel must have burned the place down in order to conceal her crime. And it looks like he did a really good job of it.
Dana and Kevin end the book by agreeing that they're glad Rufus Weylin is dead. Some of us might still have some sympathy for Rufus, but the book sure doesn't. It chooses this moment to remind us that there are many other people in this world who deserve sympathy more than a guy like Rufus. Being delusional is not an excuse for being violent and racist.
Our narrator Dana tells us about how she lost her arm while travelling through time between 1976 and 1815. Then she gets into the nitty gritty details of what happened when she went back in time. It turns out that she keeps going back to visit a distant ancestor of hers named Rufus Weylin. Rufus is a white slave owner and Dana is a modern black woman, so you can imagine that there is friction between their two worlds. Dana returns to her home and present time whenever she feels as though her life is in danger. The problem is that she needs to put herself into some pretty hot water before she gets this feeling, which fills almost every page of this book with danger.
Things get really complicated when Dana's husband Kevin joins her on one of her trips to pre-Civil War Maryland. But there's an upside in the fact that Kevin can pretend that Dana is his slave and thus protect her. This strategy works until Rufus Weylin's father catches Dana teaching his slaves to read and write. He whips her nearly to death and Dana travels back to 1976 without Kevin. By the time she goes back in time again, nearly five years have passed in Rufus and Kevin's time. Dana waits and works on the farm while she waits for Kevin to return. Eventually, they reunite and return to 1976. But it's not long before Dana is called back to Rufus' time.
Rufus asks Dana to help him have sex with one of his slaves named Alice. Dana thinks this situation is appalling, but she also knows that Rufus and Alice need to have children if she (Dana) is ever going to be born. She helps Rufus until the moment her ancestor Hagar is born. Then she knows she won't have to put up with Rufus' horrible behavior anymore. On her last trip back in time, she learns that Alice has killed herself after Rufus lied to her about selling her children. Rufus tries to make himself feel better by raping Dana, so she stabs and kills him. Another slave named Nigel finds the scene and burns down the house to conceal the murder. Dana learns all about it back in 1976, where she and Kevin go to Maryland to look at the site of Rufus' house.