To try to understand

Octavia E Butler in 2004

Kindred by Octavia E Butler.
Foreword by Ayòbámi Adébáyò.
Headline, 2018 (1979).

Dana Jackson finds herself called back to early nineteenth-century Maryland from 1970s California on her 26th birthday, and it keeps happening again and again over the next few days and weeks. She soon realises it’s because she has to save her ancestor Rufus Weylin from dying—whether by drowning, a fire, a beating, or an attempt to commit suicide—before he has a chance to continue his bloodline and for her to exist.

But Dana, in a mixed marriage with Kevin a decade after agitation for Civil Rights had initiated change in American society, has a culture shock to endure: Maryland was a slave state, and Dana’s arrival on the Weylin plantation as an independent educated black woman is not a welcome development for the white owners, Tom and Margaret Weylin, Rufus’s parents.

What counts as a few weeks in 1976 equates to several months and even years as Dana (and, for a long spell, Kevin too) gets marooned in a period dangerous for slaves, freed blacks and white sympathisers alike. All the while Dana has to forge a tricky relationship with her ancestor Rufus, a red-haired five-year-old, and later a man in his twenties, who isn’t always kind to her despite being (unbeknown to him) her kindred.

Unlike Tom in Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) — which had a similar time-travelling scenario, in which the ghostly protagonist stays the same age while his Victorian friend ages with each visit — Dana isn’t spirit-like: she is physically transported back over a century and a half, making her subject to the same unreasonable demands, harsh treatment, beatings and worse that blacks were then liable to suffer. In fact this was a particularly uncomfortable narrative for me to read, knowing that it reflected a historical reality, a reality where casual cruelty and deliberate violence were meted out by landowners, overseers and Patrollers to slaves so as to keep them in line. Unfortunately, as Dana discovers, it is only when her very life is threatened that she finds herself back in her own time, bearing the bruises, wounds, bites, cuts and more that she was receiving when death stared her in the face.

I was concerned that this would be a long sequence of constant tensions with precious little release until I realised this may have been the point: Kindred was reminding us of the endemic persecution that blacks had to put up with on a daily basis in slave states. It’s a tragedy and a travesty that this reflects the kind of prejudice and even treatment that many their descendants still have to endure on a daily basis two hundred years later, four decades after Butler’s novel was published.

But even more disturbing to me than the casual violence meted out by whites to blacks in general, if that were possible, was the domestic abuse Butler describes: Tom Weylin beating the child Rufus, setting up a learnt pattern for the future; a petty Margaret Weylin’s finding fault and asserting control over domestics demonstrating her intellectual vacuity; Rufus repeating the classic behaviours of the abuser towards partners with repeated beatings followed by guilty avowals of remorse, all in an endless cycle. Such violent demonstrations of control by abusers must surely mask their fears of a loss of control over others, maybe even anxieties about reprisals, and could be attempts to gloss over unacknowledged character weaknesses. Meanwhile the responses of the abused that Butler clearly outlines in her narrative are universal: the ambivalent emotions the abused often feel towards their abusers — love, hate, pity, and fear alternating — along with instincts for fight, flight or freeze, any one of which can too easily lead to further jeopardy.

Books and reading, and their centrality to education and enlightenment, are also central to Kindred. Dana and Kevin are both writers in the 20th century; in the 19th century Dana is first regarded with suspicion for being an educated black and for her potential to taint slaves with the skills of reading and writing; the Weylins, though they have inherited a library, are relatively illiterate and require Dana to teach Rufus to write, to read to Margaret, and in time to teach the children of the adult Rufus (one of whom will be her direct ancestor). The danger such skills represent are omnipresent, persisting through the years, affecting both past and future, and requiring Dana to bear a legacy of physical and emotional scars and suffering a sacrifice that’s as traumatic as it’s symbolic.

Should we have any quibbles about the mechanics of Dana’s time-travelling to rescue a past ancestor from death? I don’t think so: it’s enough that it happened. To fathom how it happened is as pointless as Dana trying, when faced with injury and infection, to explain to the Weylins the notion of microbes or the need for hygiene without her being accused of witchcraft. As she says to Kevin, “If we told anyone else about this, anyone at all, they wouldn’t think we were so sane.” But what matters is the essential truth of Butler’s story: it lays bare a history that needs to be visited and examined for us all, as Kevin speculates, “To try to understand.”

No 10 of 15 Books of Summer

32 thoughts on “To try to understand

    1. I don’t think they’ll ever be history, Bart, however much people are educated: we all have a sense of ‘other’ — which is right and proper, as it’s a instinctive survival mechanism — and education can try to inform our intellect that not all otherness forms an innate threat; but emotion too often overrides intellect, or a naked instinct is cloaked with, indeed justified by, an irrational prejudice.

      We see it in aggressive football tribalism, in the posturing of political pundits, in the petty bullying that takes place in classrooms, playgrounds, workplaces. And societies are so complex, made up of different cultures, families, gangs, that those prejudices flow like underground streams, erupting through the surface at moments of crisis or at a point of weakness in political will.

      Sorry to be prolix but I’m deeply pessimistic about the way current events are spiralling out of control.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. You’re right. I’m not sure if I’m deeply pessimistic on the long run, but things won’t get better for the foreseeable future. I’m reading The Evolution of Moral Progress by Buchanan & Powell atm, and they argue that in times of crisis moral regression can occur, and that means a reduction of inclusivity. (I’m reading it in between other stuff, so don’t expect a review soon.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. At my age, at over three score years and ten, I’m not optimistic I’ll see any betterment in my remaining lifetime; it’s my kids and grandkids and their loved ones I feel for. Moral regression? I’m sure we’re seeing it now, and the problem is the opposition to right-thinking and right-action is more than willing to play dirty, to our collective disadvantage. If and when the regression stops it may be too late.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hitler played it dirty too, I’m not sure if that has changed. The new is the internet, poisoning the well. But I agree, I don’t see quick paths to change, only more paths to further regression.

            Liked by 1 person

  1. The description, though in a different context entirely, makes me also think of the Alison Uttley, A Traveller in Time where Penelope was physically present in and interacted with people from the past.

    The casual violence and so-called ‘disciplining’ does horrify and make one shudder; reading Condemned, a non-fiction account of transports last month, I had the same reaction–most of them whether sent to America to work on plantations or to Australia to build the colony were subjected to violence and abuse–physical and verbal–almost constantly, even for minor mistakes or allegedly failing to do their duty.

    And it is sad to think, that such attitudes and abuse still persist (even if forms may have changed).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you’re absolutely right, and maybe I could have also mentioned the Uttley in this context, or even Penelope Lively’s A Stitch in Time, all fine narratives of how the protagonists engage intimately with the past, or rather with a particular period fraught with significance.

      And as I said to Bart above, I’m deeply pessimistic, even as world events and natural disasters head in unmanageable directions. So I’m reminded of the pernicious dealings of Daesh and Al-Shabab and the Taliban, for example, where women and others are concerned; and civil wars in recent decades where opposing forces are demonised to suggest they’re subhuman; and in the UK right now we have a zealot Home Secretary (who ought to know better) proposing to send legitimate asylum seekers to offshore islands, as if they’re convicts, for daring to seek safety from persecution in their country of origin.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do plan on picking up the Lively for the 1976 reads if I can get a copy in time; Tom I am yet to get to as well.

        It sad (and very worrying) to think that things haven’t really changed–the so called protections of rights, and guarantees of equality are facades and the powers that be continue to do just as they please.

        Re the asylum seekers, the transportation book I was referring to (Condemned–I reviewed it last month), also pointed out that those that faced this fate in the colonies weren’t necessarily convicts alone–dissidents were treated the same, and even children sent in pursuit of ‘better’ opportunities suffered abuse.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The story of the child migrants from postwar Britain to Australia is indeed deeply troubling. And of course Australia had (still has?) a policy of housing asylum seekers on offshore islands and the more distant Christmas Island (“immigration detention facilities”).

          Liked by 1 person

          1. We have a long history of racism in Australia. I just watched a program on the ABC about the struggles of women to get into parliament and the appalling way they were treated when they did get there. And the language used in parliament by men to describe indigenous people (and remaining on the record) was quite disgusting.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. It’s dispiriting. Some Australian politicians (at least the males I’ve heard) seem to have a penchant for what’s blandly called plain-speaking but which would be called unparliamentary language in the UK. I may be over-generalising here though!

              Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sandra, I feel very privileged to have the calibre of comments on my posts and the dialogues and conversations that result. And Kindred is not only a ‘worthy’ book (how slyly critical that word can be!) but also a gripping piece of storytelling.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. If Eldest Child thinks it worth his time that is high praise indeed! I found it particular pertinent to be finishing just as the Euro Final approached and the bigots, racists and anti-woke keyboard warriors were getting into full swing — a depressing reminder, as if any were needed, of the essential inhumanity of a significant proportion of the populace.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this a few years ago and found it fascinating and thought-provoking, although it’s certainly not a comfortable book to read, as you’ve said. I didn’t worry too much about the mechanics of the time travel as it seemed to be mainly just a plot device to enable us to explore slavery from a modern perspective, which worked very well. I’m glad you found this as interesting and relevant as I did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, how the time-travel works is less relevant than that is happens at all, and even the why — why this particular woman, why this particular epoch in recent history and not any other — is less important than that the story is told.


  3. This is a book that I keep on my TBR but am postponing reading it due to the violence/abuse aspects you discuss in your review, Chris. This sounds like a book for a certain mood, but since this mood is not forthcoming I might just have to force it and read regardless.

    I would dearly love to see the concept of race left behind for good; but this doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon.
    Great review, Chris! Lots of food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I get really distressed by contemplating any kind of sadistic violence, Ola — I know it happens but I don’t need to be given the full details, as this somehow makes complicit in it — so this kind of narrative is one I’d normally steer clear of.

      But as this is told from the victim’s point of view, and we know from the very start that there will be an end to her physical trauma, we retain hope; and although we know that even in the 1970s the black experience was never hunky-dory (any more than it is now) there was at least some amelioration with nominal civil rights won, and so the fictional narrative was at least pointing out how bad it had been just in case anybody was inclined to forget.

      Above all, as a piece of fiction it works really well, especially with a protagonist one can both empathise with and admire. I hope my review got that across!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely! And that’s also why I’m more inclined to reach for this book sooner than later, as my recent approach to violence is very much in line with yours. Violence for the sake of violence, a violence porn, so to speak, is abhorrent to me. But this book doesn’t seem to be the case for it, and indeed the problems it touches upon are continuously important and worth considering.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I read this novel before I discovered the rest of Butler’s novels and found it deeply disturbing. Now that I’ve read all the others, it’s one of my least favorite, maybe because it’s still so powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Disturbing and powerful it certainly is, especially as the 19th-century attitudes and behaviours of whites it depicts shamefully still exist in pockets of many white populations around the world.


  5. piotrek

    I’m intrigued by Octavia Butler, and inspired by your plan to read more books by female authors – and so I bought her sf trilogy, Xenogenesis, for my Kindle – although it will be some time until I read it. This one seems like a tough lecture indeed, and as I just recently read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave”, I feel saturated with this topic for the time being. We’ll see if I’m eager for more Butler after the trilogy 🙂

    Contemporary political context is so shameful… people seem to learn so slowly. I had a funny/sad encounter last week on vacation. I was looking at all kinds of souvenirs in a gift shop in Greece, and I heard a voice in Polish – the shop’s owner happened to be Polish and on her phone, complaining to someone about lazy and ungrateful migrant workers. I don’t know her story, but she was clearly not native on this island herself… I wonder what she’d say if I revealed my nationality, probably sth like “I’m not racist but…”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. *sigh* That last phrase is so common, isn’t it, whatever language it’s spoken in: I understand people fearing or even suspecting otherness but it’s unforgivable that they don’t or as frequently won’t recognise commonalities. I already have the inklings of a post about such am issue and just need to summon up a degree of righteous anger to set it down.

      Nevertheless I quite understand your reluctance to revisit a ‘tough’ topic so soon after a recent immersion in it. I have Jemison’s The Fifth Season to read at some future date, but having read a couple of her short stories in a collection I suspect it’ll be be quite intense, and with the world in its current tense state intensity isn’t something I’m looking for more of.

      I’m glad you’re feeling ready connect with your blogging fraternities (and sororities?) again: I trust your new official status and your joint sojourn away have been and remain as delightful as you’d hoped! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        Thanks 🙂 I started by reading some of the posts from the last few weeks, wrote the last wedding-related post on Re-E, and now I vowed to concentrate on books – or possibly TV shows – for some time 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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