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Time for Book Club! | Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Time for Book Club! | Kindred, by Octavia Butler

As with all book clubs, a great part of the joy of our Imaginary Book Club is reading together and chatting about what we’ve read as a group. For more info on how our online book club work, and the many ways you can participate, hop over here or sign up to read with us.

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Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

Dana, a modern (circa 1970) black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him.

Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.

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41 Comments

  1. Imaginary Book Club

    How would you classify this book? Was it science fiction? Mystery? Fantasy?

    Reply
    • Whitney

      Wow! It really is a bit of everything, isn’t it?!

      I think officially Kindred kicks off the sub-genre of “afrofuturism,” which is a really interesting area to explore if you really enjoyed reading Kindred.

      Kindred is complicated – it’s not fantasy to me, because it’s too well based within reality. And it’s less of a mystery, because things don’t fully get explained at any point. Speculative fiction does ring true.

      Reply
      • Jill

        Speculative fiction, with even a bit of historical fiction thrown in seems right to me. This is a hard one to classify though.

        Reply
    • Becca

      I thought historical science fiction…which isn’t real but it fit for me!

      Reply
      • Anna

        I get you, Becca! I was going more historical fantasy, actually.

        Which maybe is what you mean, Jill, by speculative fiction?

        There actually isn’t much “science” in it at all. I just finished reading The Three Body Problem, which spent a lot of time explaining EXACTLY the scientific reasoning behind space travel, communication with other life forms, etc. It was “hard science” fiction as in physical sciences — but it was also hard as in difficult.

        Kindred is definitely a boundary breaker for science fiction. She doesn’t really spend any time on the science or mechanics behind Dana’s time travel. We don’t know why or how it happens. However, I didn’t have any trouble believing it.

        Reply
        • Whitney

          You’re right Anna, not a lot of “science” there! Butler doesn’t even really worry about explaining how the time travel works, ever. I think that would knock it into fantasy for me.

          Reply
          • Austyn

            Before reading these comments I was thinking sci fi, but I agree with the lack of science and having that lean me towards fantasy! SO GOOD! If you dislike fantasy, don’t let that labeling deter you! I promise there are no elves or dragons (not that I dislike either!).

  2. Imaginary Book Club

    Was this portrayal of slavery different from others that you have read? Do you think Dana was different from the other slaves? What made her that way?

    Reply
    • Jill

      Dana seemed different from the other slaves to me because it didn’t seem like a permanent condition. She always had in the back of her mind that she would go home eventually.

      Escape for slaves didn’t seem nearly as possible here as it does in other books.

      Reply
      • Whitney

        Yeah – I liked that as a reality check. Escape seems a lot more feasible in a lot of books. Here, it was basically a death sentence.

        Reply
    • Beverly Kippes

      Once Dana figured our what it was that brought her back to the present, she had a way to escape. Slaves never had that and true escape was not feasible.
      Right after finishing the book I heard a podcast about a slave couple that escaped and how they did it. Check out the podcast Criminal episode 59. It was really interesting.

      Reply
    • Becca

      I think the hope that you see in other books about slavery isn’t as present. It is hushed over or whispered but most know you would die or be severely punished. I think that part of this is looking at the fact that Dana under Rufus’ protection and for the other slaves that puts her as someone who is to be feared or at least treated with care. Dana is different for me as she not only knows it isn’t permanent but Rufus, as creepy as he was protected her from a large amount of punishment.

      Reply
      • Anna

        I agree! That sliver of hope that this isn’t her permanent life is important. It is interesting when she shifts from being a “tourist” to a “participant”…

        Reply
    • Anna

      For me, I think the portrayal of slavery was unique in the fact that it delved so much into the intimacy and inner lives of those under slavery. History often loses sight of these types of stories. In Kindred, you see how slaveholders were raised by slaves, but sold their children. How childhood crushes could end in violent rape.

      I was particularly impressed with how she dealt with the challenges of loving those who are deliberately, unwittingly, and inescapably complicit in systems of oppression. Her conversations with Kevin in the early stages of their first trip

      Initially, Dana was very different than the other slaves. You saw this in her demeanor, in her role as Rufus’ guardian angel, and the privileges afforded to her as Kevin’s lover and slave. Still, her freedom in those senses did not make her immune to violence.

      For me, in the second part of the book, you really see her struggling with the psychological and emotional toll of slavery. She recognizes how all it took was one day in the fields to “break her” and how submissive she becomes to avoid violence. In that way, she is not very different from many of them. And, I think this perspective is important — too many people look at victims of oppression and think, I’d resist and I wouldn’t let that happen to me. However, you see how almost insanely difficult it was for many people to do in those situations.

      Reply
      • Whitney

        Ugh, yes. Dana’s experience in the field is heartbreaking. And yet, she still doesn’t have even a fraction of the experience of slaves who spend their entire lives there. One day, and she would do almost anything not to go there again.

        Reply
    • Austyn

      I feel that a lot of literature romanticizes slavery- they focus on near-impossible escapes, and the hero white man slave owner who treats his slaves “well”. I appreciated that in Kindred, Rufus does not end up a “good” slave owner, setting his slaves free or helping them escape from his father. A lot of slave owners did view slaves simply as property. Being saved by a black woman would not change the minds of many.

      One part that sticks with me is the second time Dana is whipped. The first time she honestly believes she is going to die. The second time she realizes that she can survive this, that hundreds of slaves survived whippings like hers and worse. That realization would be extremely hard, knowing that you are stuck living in these conditions.

      Reply
    • Jeriann

      The introduction in the copy I had talked about how with the death of slavery, the slave narrative died, and the only way to revive it would be traveling back in time. The introduction writer said that Octavia Butler accomplished this by having her character traveling back in time. So effectively, it’s the only way for the modern reader to get an authentic view of slavery. And I thought it was much more authentic than other books I have read. There were good parts and bad parts, but it didn’t romanticize slavery. Slaves had hard lives and slave owners for the most part were cruel, even the ones who had the capability of being kind at certain moments. I think Dana was so different from the other slaves because she knew history was on her side and that slavery was wrong. She knew it wouldn’t be like this forever, and she also knew that she (most likely) had an escape. That hope and knowledge didn’t allow her to escape unharmed, but it did allow her more confidence in her dealings, particularly with Rufus.

      Reply
  3. Imaginary Book Club

    How did you see the intersections of gender, race, and class popping up in Kindred? Was it more or less powerful because the novel includes that element of fantasy?

    Reply
    • Whitney

      The elements of fantasy in Kindred made it possible for Butler to pull even more of a punch by putting the intersections of gender/race/class right at the front. Imagining the same story, but without the fantasy, you get two separate stories – one focused on intersections of gender and race, and the other focusing more on intersections of race and class. Marrying these different pieces is what made it so powerful.

      Reply
      • Anna

        To me, this book is unsparing in its depiction of slavery and patriarchy. Her depictions of whippings haunted me like the violence in Beloved did.

        Yet, I’m incredibly impressed with how Butler tackled such complex, weighty and still relevant questions related to gender, sexism, race, racism, and responsibility AND managed to write an engaging book that you could still recommend to a random relative’s book club. Both times I’ve read it, I’ve torn through it at a speed of reading Outlander (which, to me, pales next to Kindred).

        I really appreciated how she showed how these issues extend and parallel the present times. Her relationship with Kevin side-by-side with her relationship to Rufus, to me, showed a lot of insight into issues of gender and race. Kevin, even a “modern” man in an interracial marriage, still asks and expects her to do his typing. Rufus blackmails and manipulates her into writing his letters by threatening to sell off more slaves. Both, in a way, assume that their time is more valuable than hers and that she, as a woman, is better suited to such tasks.

        Even though she loved Kevin, she feared for him in antebellum society because she knew it would change him as a white man, differently than it changed her. As modern individuals, they entered that time with the same advantages and disadvantages in terms of skills and knowledge of the culture. Yet, just his race and male privilege got him the freedom to be employed and protected him from harm immediately, while her gender and race already discredited her and took away her freedom in movement and her freedom from harm.

        Reply
        • Whitney

          I never even thought of paralleling Kindred with Outlander! And it’s so obvious! Will spend many hours thinking about that now.

          Reply
        • Austyn

          I’ve never read Outlander, but I agree with their parallels. Also, I couldn’t stop thinking that if I were Kevin and I got stuck in time for YEARS, I would unintentionally blame it on Dana. The craziest part of this book is that their time with Rufus took place over years, and their time in modern days took place over a little more than two weeks. I can’t imagine how their relationship could survive all of that! The power of love is real, y’all.

          Reply
  4. Imaginary Book Club

    Kindred was written and published in the 1970s. How do you think attitudes have changed since then? Would Dana be shocked to be thrown forward into history, as she was to be thrown backward?

    Reply
    • Whitney

      This was actually an element of the story that I was truly surprised by! When I read the description saying “a modern woman of the 1970s” I assumed that it would feel dated or awkward. I don’t think there was a single moment when I felt like Dana couldn’t have been a woman I know today.

      Reply
      • Jill

        I totally agree with you here. I read like a book that could have been written this year.

        Reply
    • Whitney

      That said – Octavia Butler might have had a harder time setting Kindred in today’s world – I have no idea how she would have integrated modern technology and made it work/not work.

      Reply
    • Beverly Kippes

      We seventies women were really the birth of feminism, well some would say that the suffragettes were, but since I am a girl of the seventies….
      The thing that I found interesting was that interracial marriages were still very rare in the seventies, and the author treated it like is was an every day occurrence.

      Reply
      • Anna

        I know! I was disappointed in myself that I was so surprised when I found out that Kevin was white! I didn’t really catch it until she talked about their horrible racist supervisor saying they were “Chocolate & Vanilla”. I suspect that was deliberate on her part.

        Gosh, when they talked about their family’s reactions to their marriage, it was so heartbreaking. Clearly, they had a strong love.

        Reply
      • Whitney

        I think that the author did mention that their family’s were pretty horrible about their marriage, but the severity of that reaction really paled in comparison to the racism of the 1800s…

        Reply
    • Austyn

      When it first starts and states it’s taking place in the 70’s, I thought “that’s a clever era to set this in!” And then I realized that it was actually PUBLISHED in the 70’s! I really thought this story could have been written today. It would be interesting to see this re-written today, with the emergence of such stark racial tensions in the US.

      Reply
      • Whitney

        Lol, nice. Gots to pay attention to when books are released!

        It is a creepily good read to take on in today’s racial tensions.

        Reply
        • Austyn

          It still seems so current!

          Reply
    • Jeriann

      I have noticed lately that a lot of media, particularly involving women, LGBT issues, and people of color, has seemingly lacked progress in the past few decades. By that I don’t mean the work itself hasn’t improved or developed, I mean that the work that seemed progressive and amazing for its comments on social issues and inequality hits the same way now as it did then. The conversations are the same and society’s reactions are the same. So I felt that this book could have been written today with very few changes. Though if the “present” was set in today, I think that there could have been an interesting added difficulty for Dana. She may have had more access to more information in her visits back home, but I think the transition from technology making every aspect of our lives easier to plantation life might have been even more harrowing. That’s assuming, of course, her character would have easy internet and computer access, but considering her writing background, I think she would.

      I think if Dana was thrown forward in history, she would first be shocked by all the physical changes, particularly in how technology affects our daily lives, but come to be even more shocked by how similar the conversations around race and gender equality are to the 70s. Life is certainly better for a lot of people, but it’s still just as bad for many, who don’t get talked about in the media very often. Since when she went back in time to a slave plantation, it would be likely for her to go forward in time to some modern form of slavery. This could involve something around the prison system and sentencing reform, or perhaps it would be set in the modern workplace and spotlight the expectation of women and minorities to educate outsiders without compensation, and offer free emotional labor at anyone’s request or be deemed selfish and “not helping ‘your peoples’ case”.

      Reply
  5. Imaginary Book Club

    How do you think Rufus really feels about Dana? Do you think that by only hearing Dana’s perspective, we might be missing something?

    Reply
    • Whitney

      The relationship between Dana and Rufus is so complicated. Rufus does seem drawn to Dana in a very uncomfortable way, which might be explained more if we knew more of his perspective.

      Dana’s resignation to helping Rufus was really disheartening. She did fight back, and when it counted the most, but she just seemed so defeated at times, it was painful to hear her sharing her love and hate of Rufus in the same sentence.

      Reply
    • Beverly Kippes

      I don’t think Rufus knows how to feel about Dana. She is so different from the black women that he has encountered. She leaves him unbalanced most of the time.

      Reply
    • Austyn

      I agree that Rufus has no idea how to feel about Dana. He has obviously told other people about her, and sticks up for her to his parents, but he may see her as nothing more than a person who saves his life. I think we are definitely missing something hearing only Dana’s perspective, but I don’t know that I want to hear Rufus’s side…as soon as he committed rape, I was off team Make-Rufus-a-good-guy! I really despised Rufus. His FATHER was more trustworthy than him, and that’s saying something! So I think he saw Dana as a means to him staying alive, and little more than that.

      Reply
      • austyn

        I have more thoughts on this, but they would contain major spoilers, so I will hold them all in!

        Reply
    • Jeriann

      I think Rufus’s feelings about Dana are tied to his obsession with power. He knows Dana can save him and that both delights him and scares him because he know that gives her potential power over him. He is so insecure about controlling others and getting what he wants (we see this in his relationship with his mother and with Alice) that he has no idea how to have equal interactions with women, even when they are the ones qualified to “fix” a situation. I think the character of Rufus could easily be made into a modern day internet troll, lashing out at anyone who disagrees with him, even if those people are trying to better him through conversation.

      Reply
  6. Beverly Kippes

    One other comment is more about the editing than the content. There were three times in the book when she used “_____ and I” when it should have been “_____ and me”. For me, incorrect grammar in a book is very distracting and it usually takes me several pages to get over it, if I ever do! I am no editor so, I should never find editing errors.

    Reply
    • Whitney

      Aw boo! Editing errors can be such a yank out of the story.

      Reply

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