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Stop Making Sense

I read anything that's nailed down, or even just moving slowly. Cereal boxes, candy wrappers, all genres, etc., and I don't always have much time for arbitrary distinctions like literary fiction vs. genre fiction.


Unflinching, Unique Time-Travel Novel

Kindred - Octavia E. Butler

[spoiler]What do you do when, in order to exist, you have to allow the rape of another character, a woman just like you? Yeah. That's just ONE of the big questions being asked in this novel.[/spoiler]

I'm sorry to say that it's taken me this long to get around to Octavia Butler's books, if the others are as powerful as Kindred. Dana, a woman living in then-present-day (1976) Los Angeles who is married to an older white man, is pulled back in time to 1812 Maryland, which was then a "Southern" state. She finds herself administering mouth-to-mouth to a young white boy (Rufus), and then facing a shotgun in the hands of his angry father. Before anything else can happen, though, she's pulled back to Los Angeles, where she and her husband Kevin try to make sense out of what just happened.

Turns out that Rufus will grow up to be her ancestor, and Dana keeps getting sent back in time when he's in grave danger. This sets up the situation mentioned above: [spoiler]for Dana to exist, Rufus must rape one of his slaves, Alice, who has already asked Dana for help in escaping. This is the crux of the book, in my opinion.[/spoiler]

Along the way, Butler explores slave culture in general, how easy it is to adapt to a horrible situation (for whites and blacks) when your survival depends on it, and the dynamics of a marriage, especially when there are racial and age imbalances, among other themes.

This was one of the first non-comedic time-travel novels (yeah, I'm looking at you, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court). In 2015, Kindred might seem a little heavy-handed and obvious in places, but back in 1976, it would have been closer to groundbreaking. For one thing, Dana's travel back to 1812 isn't under her control, unlike books such as H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. For another, it's one of the few with a female protagonist, and it does an outstanding job of countering the typical "go back or forward in time and have adventures" trope that male characters typically do--in many times and in many places, there have been consequences to being female, and especially being black and female. The book also shines a light on the prevailing culture in a crystal clear, nonromantic way. I haven't such an immersive portrayal in a time-travel book since Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, which was actually published later (1992).

One interesting tidbit: 1976 also saw the publication of Alex Hailey's seminal book Roots, a huge hit in both book and later TV miniseries forms. People looking for an education on the early black experience in the U.S. could do worse that diving into these two books published in the country's Bicentennial year.