KINDRED by OCTAVIA BUTLER

July 8, 2017 at 12:15 pm Leave a comment

Although it is a study of America in the early 1800s this book could be a vision of the future. It’s apalling central character Rufus was raised in a household with slaves, whom he simultaneously regarded as friends and family, and ordered around to do his every wish and command. His total inability to form genuine relationships may be what is waiting for us all in the era of the robot; when our children have been brought up with electronic child care slaves they are free to use and abuse.
But Rufus is not the core issue. The real story is of African American woman – Dana – from the 1970s.

She gets transported back in time to the slave owning past when the life of her white ancestor – the apalling Rufus – is threatened. She then gets transported back to her time when her own life is threatened. So the book is constructed from the series of dramatic events that lead to her being transported back-and-forth, and how it is for her to survive between these events, either as a black woman in slave era America or back in her own 70s Los Angeles wondering what is going on.

This time travel scenario is set up so that even though she often only stays in her time for a few hours between trips to the past, when she goes back years have passed. Likewise she can be back in the slave times for months, but only gone for a few minutes from her own time.

This set-up is a little complex but it makes for a great book. It’s a very clever at multiple levels. Its main purpose is to allow us to see more clearly the slave owning world because we can see it through modern eyes, but black eyes. However, it also has some practical story telling bonuses. For example, it stops her killing her obnoxious ancestor because she knows has to wait until her ancestor Hagar is born, otherwise she herself might never come to be.

It’s well written in the sense that the writing stays out-of-the-way, and does it’s job of communicating characters and scenes. It does not try to wow you with language fireworks but its certainly not any the less powerful for that.

This more plain writing style is the major real difference with the previous book group novel – Beloved. It was also a very powerful novel about slave America, but the writing was difficult at times and beautiful at others. Either way the writing was constantly, and deliberately, in your face. In contrast this book is very easy to read. It doesn’t shout at you that its a literary novel. Tellingly though everybody in the group finished it for the first time in many years because it was easy to read.

Interestingly both books agreed that in their view the most crucial part of the slave experience is the humiliation, self loathing and self doubt it causes. Both books communicate this same experience, just in different ways.

They both say that self-doubt and humiliation comes from feeling like you have given in to violence, chosen not to resist and fight back, and how this causes ongoing guilt. A feeling that you are allowing this to happen to you; even though you have no choice, it’s clear you will be killed if you do resist; nevertheless self loathing comes from that perception that you have acquiesced, accepted and therefore in some way participated in this abomination.

These books hammer that point, this in their view is the biggest part of the slave experience and why that self loathing has echoes down the generations

Even though it was written in the 70s the book does take the opportunity to deal with many things other than slavery.

The main character is black and in her own time she’s married to a white man, and there is a lot said about that at the beginning. Rightly so. Interracial marriages as they called in the US, even in the 21st century, seem to remain very controversial. The purpose of the story of their families both ostracising them in their own is to show America still has a long way to go. 

There is also a lot of gender issues in the novel because Dana, the main character, arrives back in time with short hair and wearing pants. They dont know what to think of her. 

There is also interesting dynamics amongst the black slaves. There is a hierarchy. Dana is seen as too close to the masters, too educated, so she is called a white nigger. This shows to complexity of humans, and makes the point that just because you are a victim of some terrible doesn’t automatically make you are saint. Victims can also be horrible to their fellow victims.

The other main character, Rufus, is a remarkable psychological creation. He is just appalling in almost every way, but this is done in a way that really shines a light on what it means to live well what it means to have good relationships. 

Everything with Rufus is about punishment and reward; even when he has genuine feelings. He really does seem to love Dana and another woman in the book Alice – the mother of his children. Even so he only deals with them in a punishment and reward way. He wants them to love him and he thinks he can achieve that through punishment, often terrible punishment, and reward. It makes no sense, every reader knows you cant beat someone in to loving you, but in his case its all he knows. It is the only model of relationship he has see, because he has grown up isolated on slave era plantation with his father. As a man of his time this is how his father treated both Rufus as a child and his slaves, so Rufus behaves the same way.

This really tells you something about the the slave-master relationship. It also seems to be saying something about the impact of slavery on the white slave-owners not just about the impact of slavery on the black slaves

And this is where you can argue the study of slavery has great contemporary relevance. We may be entering a new era of slavery, the slavery of robots. So it may be that we are all at risk of becoming Rufus when we all have permanent personal slaves. If we treat them as slaves will they have the same affect on us? Will we all become like Rufus in the way that we deal with people because we are used to dealing with our electronic slaves, so will we treat each other in the same way and be disappointed when people don’t respond like our robots respond? If we get used to treating our robots as slaves will we want to treat humans the same way? Worse still will we look for opportunities to get a ‘real’ slave – a genuine human we can treat like a robot, will that become the new conspicuous consumption?

Even bookgroupers who don’t normally like sci-fi or fantasy managed to cope with the time travel aspect with no problem. I think because of straightforward language and the really clever devices were used to set up the scenario:

  • Making Rufus the ancestor of Dana meant she had she to keep rescuing him until her ancestor Hagar was born even though he was so appalling. 
  • Making the trigger for the time travel a life-threatening situations for either Rufus or Dana because it meant the drama had to keep coming to get them back and forth. It created constant suspense because whatever time she was in you wondered what was going on back in the other time.
  • Having her there from the 70s really made you look at the slave world through her 70s eyes. 
  • Having her there as black woman really brought it home very strongly especially in one instance where she was sent back in time with her white husband so they were there together and how that played out – a black woman and a white man back in that time – and how they had to behave to survive was very revealing.

Highly recommended

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BELOVED by TONI MORRISON COMMONWEALTH by ANN PATCHETT

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