Dana is bookish; when we meet her in the opening pages of Kindred, she is unpacking books after a move.
She is sorting the fiction into one of the bigger bookcases in the living room while Kevin finishes unpacking his office.
But when she goes to the library in the next chapter, Edana Franklin isn’t going to look for a book to read, but to research what a certificate awarding a black woman her freedom would have looked like in 1815 Maryland.
Because even though Dana is unpacking her books in 1976, she slips back into 1815 Maryland,
Not figuratively, the way that she would if she was reading a good book, but literally, she slips back in time.
You may have heard that Octavia Butler is an “important writer” and time-travel is not something that many readers expect to find in an “important work”.
But what Octavia Butler does with common ideas is uncommon indeed.
One of the ways in which the incredible matter of time travel is secured for the relucant-suspender-of-belief is Dana’s desire not to believe it either.
“If you told me a story like this, I probably wouldn’t believe it either, but like you said, this mud came from somewhere.”
Also bolstering this question of credibility is Kevin, Dana’s husband, who is a by-stander (literally), there to touch and smell the mud.
Dana knows this is the kind of thing for which people are labelled crazy and the novel opens with her struggle to explain the inexplicable.
Not just to herself and to Kevin, but to authorities, to doubters, to casual and not-so-casual onlookers.
“Weak lies. But they were better than the truth. As young as the boy was, I thought he would question my sanity if I told the truth.”
So the reader doesn’t need to debate questions of sanity and madness, stress and strain, that are raised by other works that take on this theme, like Marge Piercy’s classic Woman on the Edge of Time.
Lots of questions remain for the reader, but if you buy into Dana’s character and her relationship with Kevin (and what a treat to have a working marriage to read about, after a string of dysfunctional relationships), you set aside the “How?” question right along with her.
Dana, at twenty-six years old, is wrestling with matters of survival, so figuring out the mechanics will have to wait.
She needs papers to move through this other time/place because a black woman in 1815 is vulnerable in countless ways.
Many of those ways leap off the page of Butler’s novel. Some of scenes are intensely graphic and disturbing; I’m sure I was holding my breath on a few occasions.
There are also some very touching scenes, which balance out the constant tension in this novel.
Because it is tense. Slipping back-and-forth through time is an involuntary act; Dana spends much of her time being frightened and angry.
“At first I stared back. Then I looked away, remembering that I was supposed to be a slave.”
She has to face injustices first-hand that she has previously only experienced in the pages of history books, dealing with the conflict of overt physical threats and with the psychological and emotional complications that arise.
“Slaves lowered their eyes respectfully. To stare back was insolent. Or at least, that was what my books said.”
This constant struggle contributes to an accelerated pace; there are some big ideas in this novel, but it’s hard to slow to think about them when you’re all wrapped up in Dana’s story (and not just Dana’s either, for she shares her adventure).
Even the smallest occurrences contain the potential to disrupt the fragile balance that maintains Dana’s safety.
“I wished they’d stop asking questions. I didn’t want them to make me tell lies I might forget later. Best to keep my background as simple as possible.”
The chapters are broken into smaller segments, and there is an abundance of dialogue, only short bits like that above to slow the pace; it’s almost impossible to read this book slowly.
(But you might trip on some typos, which is disappointing, but that characterized the last book of hers that I read, too: she deserves more attentive copy-edits.)
As fundamentally affecting as I find her works (her Xenogenesis trilogy literally changed the way that I see the world), her prose seems strictly functional in many ways.
There is a certain complexity to structure and character-development (at least in this novel, with its back-and-forth-ing), but language and style take a backseat to story and ideas.
And that’s all right with me. Because Dana may spend the majority of her time between frightened and angry when she’s back in time, but she also spends it being courageous and revolutionary, in an everyday way that makes me want to read every word that Octavia Butler has written.
How about you?