Octavia Butler's "Kindred" is both startlingly interesting, and a little contrived. It's a quick read, and well worth the weekend it takes to finish. However, it is not really a book of inexhaustible depth. Just a good (if harrowing) little novella, that makes its not-so-subtle point by trying to get the reader to experience the past as a modern time traveler would. Sometimes called a science fiction novel, the book's one "sci-fi" trope---time travel---is used simply to place a modern character in a historical setting. I would predict that science fiction devotees would not find that part of the novel at all impressive.
Inexplicably, the novel's protagonist (a 20th century black woman, named Dana) is transported to ante bellum Maryland, where on a slave plantation, she meets (and repeatedly saves) her great-great-grandfather. The twist: this particular grandfather was slave-master to her great-great grandmother. As the novel progresses, Dana realizes her goal is to help ensure their fertile coupling... and her own future. But climbing this branch of the family tree won't be easy, given that she must experience all the horrors of slavery in order to make that happen. Hence the double entendre which is the basis of the title (Kindred = "kin dread").
Along the way, the reader has the opportunity to watch as Rufus Weylin grows up from careless little boy to crass slave-holding plantation owner. Back and forth Dana travels between her familiar modern-day life as a young writer, and the dreary hell of a southern plantation. When Rufus' life is in danger, she comes to him. When she feels her own is in danger, she returns... but always with reminders of this horrific past scarred into her body.
Butler tries to present her reader with something like the grand tour of the old south... a Colonial Williamsburg of the slave plantation, but with none of the predictable horrors expunged. Rapes, whippings, disease, and the sale of human slaves (often done to intentionally divide families) bluntly fills up the bulk of the book. But the real pathos of the book is the effect all this has on four major characters: Dana, Rufus, Dana's husband Kevin (who is white), and Alice.
Alice is a free woman who is taken into bondage by the Weylins after she tries to help her lover (a slave) escape. Dana's quest is to ensure that Alice and Rufus produce a healthy offspring... thus ensuring her own lineage and future life. That's not going to be easy, given the fact that Rufus is a repulsive lout whom Alice understandably despises.
Reading "Kindred", I couldn't help but feeling that the novel was somewhat contrived. First, there are the repeated attempts to remind the reader of famous black Americans of the period (Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner), making the book at least partly a vehicle for a PBS-like history lesson. Secondly, its attempt to present the customs of the era is not really entirely precise. It focuses too much on those parts of the past that its liberal-minded audience would find most uncomfortable: mostly, the attitudes of slave-holding whites' towards this proud, literate protagonist, but also the complex relationship between field hands and house slaves. Where it tries to recreate the mundane details of 19th century life---say, medicine, language, cooking, farm life, religion or education----the book comes across as tepid at best, and misleading at worst.
Then, of course, there are the very unusual hopeful notes. That Dana eventually convinces Rufus to allow her to school the slave children seems an utterly modern contrivance. Skeptical readers will wonder how Dana, a pants-wearning, back-talking feminist, who is not only the wife of a white man, but also has the peculiar habit of vanishing into thin air, is not simply killed outright by the semi-literate, superstitious, and violent plantation owners. Instead, she becomes their trusted servant, privy to their most innermost secrets. Go figure.
Still, it's a good little page-turner... the kind of breezy read that keeps the impatient interested in what will happen next. The book would be an excellent vehicle for a high school class studying African American history or literature. But for real depth and historical imagination, I would recommend Toni Morrison's "Beloved" or Shirley Ann William's "Dessa Rose," or even William Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," all of which are perpetually interesting and challenging in a way that "Kindred" simply isn't.
3 and 1/2 stars (rounded up)