Octavia Butler’s novel KINDRED is the story of Dana, a young black woman living in California in the late twentieth century who is suddenly transported back in time to the antebellum South, where the young son of a slaveowner is drowning and she must save him. Again and again, Dana is returned to her present day life and again and again snatched back in time, each visit becoming longer and more arduous.
Kindred was published thirty-seven years ago, in 1979. I hadn’t realized until very recently just how long ago this book was written; it deserves to be solidly in classics territory. This was a time when women weren’t really known for writing science fiction, and when most black writers weren’t getting the credit they deserved. Yet Octavia Butler paved roads, bent genres, and in my mind, made history along the way. Both KINDRED and Butler’s entire backlist deserve a fresh look, which, if I look at how her books sell in my store lately, it feels they’re getting.
Reading Kindred, I find it amazing that Butler still feels so relevant today, in writing style, topic, and tone. I also find it amazing just how many different readers this book appeals to. Like historical fiction? Check. Like romance? Check. Like science fiction? Check. Need a book for your book club? Check. Need a book for your blossoming teen as they outgrow the young adult section and graduate to adult fiction? Check. Like reading underappreciated writers? Check.
Kindred is the closest thing to Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series that I’ve ever read. Butler weaves time-traveling science fiction together with historical fiction set in the antebellum South, and KINDRED is the earliest example I’m aware of of a book with broad commercial appeal that bridges multiple genres with this time-travelling device. The main character of this book jumps back and forth between two times while also navigating her personal romantic intrigue.
Diana Gabaldon started writing the OUTLANDER series in 1991. Kindred was written twelve years before Gabaldon landed on the publishing scene and I have to believe it was partly inspired by KINDRED, although I can’t find any definitive proof saying so. It used to be a hard sell when fiction crossed and bent multiple genres. It used to be unfathomable for a writer to mix romance, history, and time travel, but now there’s a broad market for this blend of genres.
Butler sets her book in the (then) contemporary 1970s. With lively characters and rich narrative, she takes on the broad issues of power, freedom (or lack thereof), gender, and race. A woman suddenly goes back in time to the days of slavery, where she’s thrust into plantation life but is viewing it through the lens of our contemporary world, struggling to understand and adapt to an antebellum existence. As she bridges both worlds, she comes to better understand her—and our collective—history.
Butler opted to portray a more PG version of slavery for the sake of potential commercial success. Some days I think this is a shame, and other days I think it was a wise move. Either way, I think it’s one of the things that’s given this book staying power. It provides an entree into a new genre while still bearing witness to that chapter of American history. For a book written nearly forty years ago, KINDRED resonates.