One of my goals for CBR 10 was to take part in one of the Book Club Reads. When this title popped up as the book choice I felt pretty neutral about it; the description, for whatever reason, didn’t intrigue me at all. At the same time, it didn’t sound boring so I figured I would give it a shot. Man, oh man, thank you CBR voters who knew way better than me. I am so glad I read this book. This may end up being a little spoiler-y, so just a fair warning.
It is the story of Dana, a black woman living in Los Angeles with her white husband Kevin in 1979. One day, for no apparent reason that she can see, she disappears from her home and reappears in a field where she sees a child drowning. After saving the child, she reappears back in her living room. Thus begins the cycle of her ancestor, Rufus, a white man in the antebellum South, getting into dire circumstances over and over (seriously, dude is stupidly accident prone coupled with some kind of crazy death wish) and Dana being pulled into the past to help him. These periods of helping take longer and longer, months at a time, but in 1979 only minutes or possibly a day passes.
While the story is interesting, and the concepts regarding a modern black woman experiencing slavery and the social constructs surrounding it are interesting on their own, it is the characters, in my opinion, that really drive this story and make it worth spending time on. No one is simple, or a stereotype, even though they may fill a stereotypical role or only be a part of the story for a short while.
Because these people are so vibrant and three-dimensional the most tragic part of the concept of slavery and the society that contained it in the United States really stands out; namely that for everyone involved, slaveholder and slave, this was normal, everyday life. While of course the slaves didn’t want to be slaves, and it really did suck, most of the time, life went on and you did what needed to be done. Some days were unimaginably horrible, some days were happy, most fell somewhere in between. The sheer normalcy of it was what struck me and what really helped land home just how horrific an institution it was and how there is no reason this should be OK. I’m having a hard time explaining exactly why this worked so well for me, but it was really powerful.
Dana is a wonderful person, I would like to know someone like her in the real world. Also, watching her see and really understand the way the world she is being forced into works, as opposed to learning and understanding from history books like the rest of us reading, how she needs to learn, and learn fast before something really bad happens. She is strong, and resourceful and she knows herself but she also has to learn to check a lot of her instincts because something as simple as looking the wrong person in the eye could end up with her getting beaten or worse. I was really struck by places where she talks about how she is walking a line, she has to conform in order to survive but she also refuses to see the situation as “normal.” She refuses to give in and let herself be washed into the everyday-ness, and that becomes harder and harder the longer she is there.
Rufus himself is also a confounding character in many ways. Similar to Dana’s feelings towards him, he had a way of pissing me off royally but I could never hate him. It was more than the fact he was a “product of his time,’ it was him. He was a sad, spoiled, kind of broken, overly pampered, mentally abused little boy who was smarter than he was given credit for and he grew into a depressed, selfish, entitled, but not unkind man who had a horrible habit of letting his baser urges win out over what he knew was right. He wants to be a good man, but damned if he doesn’t keep getting in his own way and the world he lives in doesn’t help him one iota.
I will say too that Butler does an excellent job of walking the line with that- he absolutely is a product of his surroundings, and the author has a kindness towards that that still in no way lets him off the hook. Which he shouldn’t be. I found it also fascinating that while I was reading all horrible ways he was treating the black people he came into contact with, both on his plantation and in the world at large, and especially Dana and Alice, the black woman he claims he loves, he was also capable of kindness and by anyone’s standards at the time he was considered a fair and kind master. That in many ways also landed home just how awful it was. I found that in so many ways in this book, by showing the kindnesses and the soft sides of this world Butler manages to show the horror and inhumanity all the better than she could have by just showing the wrath and cruelty.
I really loved this book, I have spent a lot of time ruminating over different sections, different characters, and different storytelling devices that are used throughout and I know I’m not done doing so. It is just a unique thing, I have never read anything like it. A lot of the things I think about I haven’t even been able to translate into words yet, it’s just, like, colors and feelings, half-formed thoughts and instincts but I enjoy thinking them just the same. If this review seems a little disjointed and awkwardly unfilled out, that is probably why, i’m still figuring out what i think and how I feel about so many parts of it, but in the best way possible.