Last week I went to a conference in southern California. I took Kindred along, hoping to have time to read a few chapters. My first day there, I sat outside on my lunch break to read.
I couldn’t put Kindred down (except, I had to in order to get back to the conference). I finished it before I came home. I read most of it sitting outside in a comfy chair, in beautiful weather. The contrast between my life and Dana’s at that moment felt surreal.
Dana is a young woman, newly married, living in 1970s LA with her husband, when, on her birthday, she is suddenly transported to a river where she saves a little boy from drowning. When a man arrives at the river and points a gun after her, she is immediately transported back to her home. After being transported a few more times–each time to save the little boy, who gets progressively older with each visit, from some disaster–she realizes that he is Rufus, her ancestor, who lives on his father’s plantation, and that it’s the early 1800s. She soon meets her female ancestor as well, Alice, a free black woman. Dana, who is black, finds herself in increasing danger with each trip back. She hides herself by serving as a slave on Rufus’s father’s plantation, getting to know the other slaves and the white people who live there. Of course, living as a slave in 19th century Maryland isn’t safe at all.
There’s a lot of plot in this book, and I could probably spend the whole review just summarizing it. What’s more important, though, is the way it evokes powerful feelings and uncomfortable thoughts. Obviously, most of us in the present day understand that slavery was wrong, and that slaves’ lives were hard in ways that we can’t possibly guess, but I would venture that for most white people, it’s just an intellectual exercise. Slavery=bad, the end. Kindred forces you to look deeply at something that white people would like to turn away from, as quickly as possible. Kindred is alternatingly terrifying, menacing, and sickening, but one thing it’s not is comforting. Other than a few precious days when she is transported back to the present, Dana gets no respite from the true horrors of slavery (a hoary phrase if ever there was one), and neither do the readers.
Kindred is difficult to read, there’s no doubt. But it is worth it, in every way. Beyond the importance of its subject matter, it’s also just a good book, and easy to become absorbed in. It leaves you with questions at the end, but not in annoying loose-end kind of way–more in the sense that this is a book that is worth discussing and thinking about after it’s over. It’s a book that demands multiple readings, and I know I’ll come back to it someday.