First published in 1979, Kindred is a novel that has aged well, still feeling fresh and current. It’s both a time travelling novel and a slave narrative, as well as being a bonafide page turner. I honestly woke up every morning looking forward to reading more.
How did I end up reading a 40-year-old novel? My daughters, both high school freshmen, are reading Kindred for English class. I usually try to read a couple of books each year that they are reading for school. That gives me an opportunity to help them if they need it and it’s also fun to discuss with them. But I’m kind of selfish about it and typically choose to read the more interesting books. For example, I passed on The Odyssey (let’s be honest here).
Kindred takes place in two different locations and two different centuries. It’s told from the first person perspective by Dana, a black woman living in California during the 1970s. On her 27th birthday, Dana is suddenly transported from her home to the edge of a pond where a little red-haired boy is drowning. She saves the boy by pulling him from the water and giving him mouth-to-mouth. When she looks up and sees a shotgun pointed at her face, she gets transported back to her house, wet and muddy. Her husband has witnessed her sudden disappearance and reappearance, but oddly he says she’s only been gone about fifteen seconds.
Thus begins a series of similar events. Dana keeps getting pulled to this different location whenever the red-haired boy’s life is in danger and she only returns home when her own life is threatened. During her subsequent “visits”, she finds out that the boy’s name is Rufus, that he’s her ancestor and he lives on farm in Maryland during the early 1800’s. His father owns numerous slaves who work in the fields and in Rufus’s house. Each visit, Rufus is a few years older and Dana’s visits increase in length. While her first visit lasts only a few minutes, some of her later visits last many months.
Because Dana is black, she is treated like a slave, although she has a few more freedoms because of her relationship with Rufus. She experiences firsthand humiliation, psychological manipulation and physical violence. But she also forms close friendships, feels an odd sense of purpose and reluctantly begins to think of the plantation as “home”. The psychological effects were interesting. Her husband, Kevin, who is white, also time travels with Dana once and gets stuck there for five years. He similarly begins to feel more at home in the earlier time period. (Actually, a book about his five years would make an interesting read. His experiences profoundly changed him, but no detail is provided.)
The time travel element creates a unique scenario in which a “modern” woman suddenly finds herself enslaved. That gives her an unusual perspective that is very competing and very finely written. As I said in my opening paragraph, this book still seems very current. The only significant reminders that this was partly set in 1976 were the use of electric typewriters and the absence of the internet to help Dana with her research. I found myself thinking a couple times, “Just Google it, Dana! Oh… Nevermind.”
I’m glad my daughters are reading Kindred (and that this was the book I chose to read with them). It’s thought provoking and should generate some good classroom discussion. Kindred would also make a great book club book.
Additionally, Octavia Butler, who was an African American woman, was quite a groundbreaking science fiction writer. You can learn more about her here.
I would be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts about Kindred. Have you read it?
Also what’s your favorite time travel book? Mine is Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander“. It’s also one of my favorite romances.