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Book Review: Kindred by Octavia Butler


Article by Mary Ellin Arch

Photography by Nicola König on Unsplash

BOOK REVIEW: Kindred by Octavia Butler

This is the most compelling slave story I’ve ever read: slavery as experienced by a modern-day Black woman.

In this original and unexpected blend of science fiction and historical novel, Dana, a contemporary Black woman, is thrown back in time repeatedly to rescue a white ancestor upon whom her very life depends. First from drowning, when he's a young boy, then from a fire, as a slightly older boy, and so on, through his young adulthood and ascension from son of slaveholder to master himself. The time shifts are uncontrollable, the lengths of stay in the antebellum South longer each trip with the risks to life and limb exponentially increased each time. It's one thing to grow up as an enslaved Black person in a culture that accepts and embraces human servitude; it's another thing entirely to be a 20th-century Black person with a job and an apartment and the ability to speak and live freely, and be flung back time and time again to an era where you are viewed as property, consigned to slavery, and unable to protect yourself. The reader can understand Dana's desperation to return home each time she is ripped back into time, yet can also empathize with her growing love for and attachment to the slaves beside whom she toils and even the master-ancestor under which she serves.

The pickiest reader may quibble that the novel is flawed because it never explains the time shifting. I, a more liberal reader in this regard, didn’t (and still don't) care; in my mind, that explanation is unnecessary, as this is not a classic science-fiction yarn. Just let go of that and accept, as Dana does, that the time shifts are inevitable, and focus instead on the immediate: survival, forging relationships with those who can improve your chances of survival, and trying to enlighten the master-ancestor you've "known since childhood" to enhance your chances of survival. Ultimately, it's this instinct for survival that propels this story.

This book has one of the best opening lines ever ("I lost my arm on my last trip home.") and is written in compelling, page-turner fashion. It's totally engrossing, and I couldn’t put it down. I read it in a scant three days. A must-read, and I will definitely read more Octavia Butler. Try Kindred, and I bet you will, too.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.