Kindred was our June Cannonball Read book club selection. I decided to read both the original novel by Octavia E. Butler and graphic novel adaptation by John Jennings and Damian Duffy. Both works focus on Dana, a young writer living in 1970s northern Los Angeles (much like Butler herself). She is recently married and moving into her new home with her older white husband, Kevin. They seem quite in love and happy.
Dana is unpacking some books when suddenly and inexplicably she travels through time to 1815 Maryland. This will unfortunately be one of many trips back in time where she encounters Rufus Weylin, the son of a plantation owner. She first meets him as a child drowning in a river. She saves him, but then rewarded by a hysterical beating from his mother and rifle in the face from his father. A likely typical reaction to a strange black woman wearing men’s clothes touching their child. It doesn’t matter she saved his life. Then boom! Dana is pulled back to her present day where a confused husband claims she was only gone a few minutes. For Dana it was much longer. All her next visits will be longer still.
The second time, Dana saves Rufus once again, this time from a fire he accidentally set in his bedroom. She puts out the fire and with his help slips out of the plantation house. She seeks refuge in a free woman’s cabin and ends up meeting Alice Greenwood, one of her ancestors, as a child. Dana pieces together that she has a familial connection to both Rufus and Alice. She never quite understands why, but eventually realizes she must play her part in her own family history.
Her next trip drags Kevin back with her. They both stay for several painful months on the plantation where they have to pretend he owns her as a slave. As the story goes on, it explores the race relations centering on the dynamic between Dana and Rufus. Their lives are intertwined whether they like it or not.
This novel is known as great work of speculative fiction. The powerful critique of America’s dark past drives the narrative engine. However, the only sci-fi elements seem to be the time travel aspects. The majority of the story is more historical fiction set in the antebellum South. Her depiction of slave life as both mundane and visceral was important. Especially when they had the party and the slaves got married, it really struck me how it all added up to the present. The slaves had to go on, otherwise Dana (nor I) wouldn’t exist. They managed to have joy, but also were bored of their work. It wasn’t whippings every day. Sadly, the threat of selling ones children was enough to keep slave women in line.
Butler is such an amazing writer that you become engrossed in the story almost immediately. The reader is pulled into the narrative as powerfully as Dana is pulled through time and space. Dana does her best to not tell anyone she is related to Alice and Rufus. I think that was Butler’s way of saying don’t totally wreck the past with information from the future. I think the idea of cause and effect is the crux of a time travel tale. Would Dana exists without her having gone back in time? Likely not as she helped Rufus get closer to Alice. The past and future were always joined in this book it seems.
As Dana mentioned to Rufus, she repeatedly saves his life when she could easily do nothing. Her compassion speaks louder to him than her words. They are from two different times. She attempts to overcome his upbringing when she enters his life sporadically. Rufus is reckless and seems to call Dana through time to him. Instead of becoming self reliant and kinder, he uses her as a crutch to solve his problems. Dana always feels sick or in danger when she is ripped through time and space. It fills her with dread, but eventually she finds a solution to take control and survive the ordeal. On the whole, Dana’s actions are a testament to her survival. She gets all sort of flack from the other slaves, whipped by Master Weylin, even hurt by Rufus. Her willingness to act, even if it may kill her, seems to be the only way to really reach them. Dana and Alice’s guilt over caring for Rufus really captivated me. Their lives are more intertwined than they ever could have imagined.
The graphic novel was a very swift read. I read it the same day as reading the original novel. It’s quite thorough in capturing the full narrative. If you loved the original novel, I highly recommend! As the themes were dark and violent, much of the illustrations use dark browns and blacks. I would have liked a bit more color to break things up perhaps in the 1970s scenes. I did love how Dana was drawn. I still say you should read the original novel even if you read the graphic novel first.
Read more of my reviews on my blog, Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict.