After my reread, I tried to remember during which Cannonball Read I had originally discovered this novel, only to realize that I had done most of my Butler reading before I participated in CBR. I had a short post on my now defunct blog where I mentioned it, but it’s been over ten years (!) since I read this so I had forgotten a lot of the details. Basic plot details: Dana, an African American woman living in California in 1976, starts getting called back to the past, early 19th century Maryland whenever Rufus, a white ancestor of hers, is in danger. She only returns to her present when her life is in danger but cannot control her coming and going, meaning that some of her visits last only minutes while others span months. While years pass between her visitations for Rufus, for Dana, only hours or days pass so that she sees him grow from a young five-year-old boy to a man in a short period.
I’ll save most of my thoughts for the book club discussion but will mention a few things that stood out to me in this read through. I wouldn’t quite call it complicity but Butler shows how by having hierarchy even within slavery, it helps divide the slaves amongst themselves as they resent how some have easier jobs, nicer beds, and better access to food. This internal competition also creates the potential for betrayal and whistle blowing, sometimes simply to avoid punishment and other times to attempt to get some type of leg up. Not that any of it matters in the end, since anyone can be sold at any time once the master loses too much money or has a whim. Being the favorite might give advantages but it also means the fall can be hard and swift while a field hand far removed from the house might never achieve any notice.
During one of her visits, Dana accidentally brings her white husband with her. While he can offer her some protection, this is only by pretending to be master and slave. The longer Dana is in the past, the more she wonders about how a system affects people living with it. If she and her husband continue to accept it, even only as observers, is there a point where she and her husband become complicit or have given up parts of their humanity to accept that people treat each other in this way? What does Dana owe to herself, what does she owe to her ancestors and what to the slaves who are long dead in her world? Along with that, Butler shows how slavery amplifies the negative of people’s personalities. While Dana hopes that her influence might guide Rufus towards being a better person, and she sees that he truly loves some people, in this warped system, his love becomes a burden and a justification for wrongdoing. What would potentially be character flaws become much worse in a man who has power over others, allowing him to act on petty thoughts and feelings.
I’m looking forward to the discussion and everyone else’s reviews. I know dAvid already drew the parallel between slavery and domestic violence, and that certainly stood out to me while reading thanks to that observation.