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Kindred

by Octavia E. Butler

Other authors: Robert Crossley (Introduction)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5,7262691,301 (4.2)600
Dana, a modern 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 across the years to save him. After this first summons, Dana is drawn back, again and again, to the plantation to protect Rufus and ensure that he will grow to manhood and father the daughter who will become Dana's ancestor. Yet each time Dana's sojourns become longer and more dangerous, until it is uncertain whether or not her life will end, long before it has even begun.… (more)
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1970s (61)
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Showing 1-5 of 269 (next | show all)
Creative and captivating storytelling, Kindred offers a unique way of looking at slavery in the Antebellum south through the eyes of a modern African American woman in the late 1970s. ( )
  elifra | Feb 15, 2021 |
This book has been on my mental TBR list for quite a while, and I'm kicking myself for not getting to it sooner! Butler is a great writer. In this novel, she takes an unbelievable premise and turns it into an absolutely believable and complex look at slavery.

Dana, a Black woman living in the 1970s, is recently married to Kevin, a white man. They move into a new home, and strange things begin happening. Namely, Dana is repeatedly sucked into the past, 1815 Maryland, to the slave plantation of Tom Weylin and his son, Rufus. She appears to be sent back in time to save Rufus every time his life is in danger. And she is only sent back to the present when her life is in danger. Dana comes to realize that Rufus is an ancestor of hers and a free black woman (child when she first meets her), Alice, will be mother to her ancestral line. With every trip back to 1815, Dana experiences first hand what it was like to be a slave and some of the complexities and powerlessness of slave life.

I thought this book was very successful. Though the premise is fantastical, the brutal realities that are explored take the book right back down to earth.

It's hard to believe this was first published over 40 years ago.

Original publication date: 1979
Author’s nationality: American
Original language: English
Length: 264 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Format/where I acquired the book: kindle library book
Why I read this: on my TBR list for a long time ( )
  japaul22 | Feb 10, 2021 |
NA
  pszolovits | Feb 3, 2021 |
Today, I snowshoed to my local library branch to return a book. But snowshoes are hard work, so I took them off and walked back on the bike path. Helped someone get unstuck from their parking spot along the way. The library book was Kindred, on a friend's card who inadvertently found herself with 2 library copies of this book so passed one on to me. And no renewal possible because the book is on hold for another library patron.

Octavia Butler's Kindred was published in 1979, after the first of her Patternist books (Patternmaster 1976, Mind of My Mind 1977, Survivor 1978). Patternmaster, published first, is the last in the chronology, all very much science fiction in terms of alien contact, the evolution of humanity, and where could we be in the far future. In contrast, Kindred is a time travel fantasy that is entirely about reckoning with our past. I had heard a lot about it, read the plot summary on the back cover, knew that it was the most likely of her books to be used in college courses.

Dana, the protagonist, is an author married to another author. They are finally doing well enough to buy a house together in 1976 after 4 years of marriage. She is unpacking books when suddenly Dana gets dizzy and blacks out and finds herself catapulted back in time to the antebellum south. She rescues a little white boy from drowning then finds herself on the wrong end of the rifle barrel of the angry white father. Another blackout, and she's back home only a few seconds after her husband watched her vanish.

***SPOILER ALERT: DETAILED CHARACTER ANALYSIS AHEAD***
The novel takes place almost entirely in the past on the Weylin plantation in Maryland in the first half of the 19th century. Dana soon realizes as she continues to get yanked back in time that the red-haired boy is her great-great-great grandfather (that's 5 generations back), recorded in the family Bible at the top of the family tree inscribed therein by her great-great grandmother Hagar. While very little time passes in her present--seconds, to minutes, to hours, to days--a brief lifetime engulfs her in the past as her forebear Rufus Weylin progresses from little boy to older boy to teenager to adult, and she arrives at pivotal moments to save his life and gets stranded until unexpectedly returning to the present dreading the next unexpected transition.

This story is an intimate look at the complexities of chattel slavery and how it bound up both blacks and whites in profound intimacy yet with obvious life-and-death differences. As a white person, I think it does an excellent job portraying how incredibly dehumanizing the "peculiar institution" was for the white people who benefited from the daily, centuries-long torture and bodily plunder of enslaved black people, such that whites simply are not capable of forming functional, healthy human relationships with anyone, really, at least not in this story.

The old saying comes to mind: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Coined by Lord Acton in 1887 when writing about the Pope, the moral authority of the Catholic church, it is certainly apropos of the slave holder, the secular authority of the plantation, where the majority population was enslaved African Americans (even if the majority population in the region was white).

Tom Weylin, the patriarchal white slave holder, is obsessed with money as his agricultural empire is a house of cards just one disaster away from defaulting on mortgages and begrudging any extra expense, even to care for his son. Being at the top of the heap is intensely precarious, leading to desperate and violent measures, even if rarely invoked (orly?) in the daily workings of the plantation, and an entire system of violence, from slave patrols to the Fugitive Slave Act, to maintain power and extract the last heartsblood from the enslaved humanity propping him up--most of his worldly wealth being those same suffering souls, and also the greatest imminent threat, with the fear of revolt ever-hovering in the hearts of plantation owners. The first (multiracial!) slave uprising occurred in the Colony of Virginia, and the Haitian Revolution was still sending aftershocks around the world.

His second wife, Margaret, is basically going insane as being lady of the house prevents her from engaging in anything remotely meaningful, leaving her only the role of spiteful, mean overseer of the house slaves. In this, I find her in the same position as the protagonist of "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Louise Perkins, which even takes place in a colonial mansion, thus recapitulating the nigh imprisonment of antebellum ladies, with the violent consequences of societal captivity turned inward rather than out. Moreover, she is dangerously jealous of the close connection between Dana and Rufus.

And yet, the enslaved house servants despise Margaret for being lower class white trash, a derogatory term that emerges from this era, when the vast majority of white people owned neither land nor slaves and lived in poverty. But hey, at least they weren't black--part of the fallout of the earliest slave revolts in the colonies was the divide-and-conquer strategy of the 1% planter class against the multiethnic coalition of enslaved/indentured laborers (an attitude alive and well today in Trumpistas, for example).

Rufus, the sole offspring and heir to the plantation, finds his closest relationships with enslaved agemates. He suffers whippings from his father for similar reason as those meted out to the enslaved people of the plantation--defying authority. He alternately basks in and violently rejects the attentions of his suffocatingly possessive and overprotective mother. Trusting or relying on neither parent, he turns to the African Americans around him for his emotional needs--a familiar pattern in the antebellum South. The story doesn't say whether he had an enslaved wet nurse. His "best friend" is the free black girl Alice Greenwood, who lives in a cabin in the woods with her mother, her father enslaved at a nearby plantation. As he grows older, he becomes increasingly obsessed with her, with devastating yet essential results for Dana's existence. He also grows into his power as a slave holder, learning how to coerce and compel the people around him with direct violence and threats to emotional hostages.

Alice Greenwood reaches adulthood and marries an enslaved black man. Rufus cannot believe she would prefer a black man to him, and violently decides her wishes don't matter--a common attitude toward all women, frankly. Her husband (Isaac Jackson) violently objects, and the two flee. Because she aided a fugitive slave, she is captured and becomes a slave herself, after recuperating from her nearly fatal injuries, trapped with the man who destroyed her life. How to go on living? And how to navigate the most intimate of love-hate relationships with Dana, who could be a sister in looks and personality, as the inevitable third person and unwilling yet inevitable intermediary between Alice and Rufus.

Dana keeps getting yanked back in time, staying anywhere from minutes to months. She is fundamentally implicated in the events unfolding around her in the past--her very existence hinges on Rufus and Alice having a daughter that survives to have a child of her own and thus found the lineage that leads to Dana in 1976. Dana must survive as a modern, educated, free black woman with all the wrong skills and attitudes and reactions for the era. What things can she live with? How can she survive? How does she conform to the power dynamics and norms of the people around her? What compromises, what boundaries, what values, what necessities? How does she unwillingly change, become complicit, even find a sense of home here? How does she contribute to or ameliorate the incredibly complicated situation?

Then there's Kevin, her husband: an egalitarian white man who loves her deeply and is committed to her. They married despite opposition from both their families. He's a necessary foil to the white men of the antebellum South. He's also marked as the Other with unusually pale eyes and prematurely gray hair. So he has the experience of being the outsider, not being normal, being inherently suspect based only on his appearance. At first, he can't quite believe her, even though he witnessed her vanishing and inexplicable return moments later. Then he is accidentally transported back with her partway through the story.

He's also a necessary foil to her in terms of being a modern person catapulted into the ugly past and confronted with all the evils of American chattel slavery, yet his life is not immediately at risk simply because he is a white man (and she is a black woman thus inherently imperiled). He is quickly offered a job tutoring Rufus, who is barely literate. And only Rufus knows that they are in fact married, not owner and slave. Can he fully appreciate the system, seeing only the white end of it in the big house, not having entree to the slave quarters and the kitchen, that hub of plantation life?

The couple experience tension due to their differing experiences and reactions to events on the plantation and their forced social roles. Kevin involuntarily benefits from this race and class system. How to resist it without getting himself killed? How to truly understand the brutality, when he is kept away from the whippings and other extreme violence?

But then, Kevin remains trapped when Dana is yanked to the present on being whipped for daring to steal a book from the house library (and teach slave children to read). When she finally returns, five years have passed and Kevin has long since moved away. How to find him? She cannot travel freely, even if the last known address for him is still valid (big if!). Plus, she needs help from Rufus to even find out his last location. Yet Rufus is just as obsessed with her as with Alice, seeing their resemblance, and also recognizing how much his survival has depended directly on Dana.

Other characters illustrate other aspects of the chattel slavery system, but also the full humanity, resilience, survival, and resistance of the enslaved African Americans. First is Luke, the enslaved overseer who does what he wants until the slave holder tires of his insubordination and sells him down the river, followed by Jake Edwards and then Fowler as increasingly brutal white overseers.

Then there's Sara, the enslaved cook who takes over management of the house after Margaret Weylin is sent away in her increasingly dangerous derangement. Full of rage at three of her children being sold away from her, yet her compliance is ensured by the presence of her one remaining child, the mute and vulnerable Carrie. She subverts the mammy stereotype.

Luke's son Nigel is the childhood playmate of Rufus and closest companion in adulthood. Dana illicitly teaches him to read when he asks her. He forms a family with Carrie; Tom Weylin is willing to hire a minister to marry them and allow Nigel to hire himself out to earn the money to build his own family cabin. After all, their kids will materially increase his wealth and his hold over them. Thus the innate conflict between the love and family that Nigel and Carrie create, and the bitterness of what that means for their enslaver. Should they deny their own humanity and fully realized human experience in order to deny the slaveholder that much more power (over them) and wealth and the potential future devastation should he choose to sell members of this new family?

Sam, the field slave, approaches Dana about teaching his siblings to read. Rufus is jealous of this perceived threat, and the consequences are predictable. Liza, the house slave tasked with sewing, feels threatened by both Dana and Alice, and her jealous actions also have predictable consequences. Cass, who goes from house slave, to Tom Weylin's sex slave, to the overseer's sex slave, to field hand, illustrates the ugly progression of female subjugation and destruction. The dynamics between field slaves and house slaves, the games enslaved children play that model the slavery system around them, the control of literacy and religion--all of these offer insights to the modern reader.

An elderly Margaret Weylin returns to the plantation after her husband's death and her son's assumption of power. Dana finds an unexpected connection to this frail opium addict--shared dialect, love of the written word. And she's always had an uneasy bond with Rufus--both dependent on each other and intimate in ways they cannot share with anyone else--it's this bond that keeps yanking Dana back in time. She feels close to both the whites and the blacks in weird interlocking ways, and alienated from and reviled by both whites and blacks similarly. Relationship status: it's complicated.

Who then is kindred? What makes family? What connections matter most? Who to cling to and why? Who to trust? What is the breaking point? What next when trust is broken? This book offers many questions and only some possible answers. It's one to sit with long after it's been returned to the library. ( )
2 vote justchris | Jan 27, 2021 |
This novel was such a cool (but horrifying) concept. I'm always so excited by the strength of Butler's heroines (I loved Lilith in her novel 'Dawn'). Just like Dawn, Kindred was very addictive to read, begging to be read in one sitting. Watching interviews with her, Butler seems like an amazing woman and I can't wait to continue reading her work in the future.
  booms | Jan 24, 2021 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Octavia E. Butlerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Crossley, RobertIntroductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gyan, DeborahCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leon, JanaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nuenning, MirjamTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Otoo, Sharon DoduaForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ross, RachelCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rummel, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schwinger, LaurenceCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Staunton, Kimsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Dana, a modern 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 across the years to save him. After this first summons, Dana is drawn back, again and again, to the plantation to protect Rufus and ensure that he will grow to manhood and father the daughter who will become Dana's ancestor. Yet each time Dana's sojourns become longer and more dangerous, until it is uncertain whether or not her life will end, long before it has even begun.

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A young African-American woman is mysteriously transferred back in time leading to an irresistible curiosity about her family's past.
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Beacon Press

2 editions of this book were published by Beacon Press.

Editions: 0807083690, 0807083100

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