I read Kindred for the first time a couple of years ago – July of 2010 if I remember correctly. I had just moved to a new apartment, and Kindred was the first book I read after I installed an air conditioner in my bedroom. The room was on the small side, and with the air conditioner running full blast it was like being in some kind of echo chamber in the international space station (Are there echo chambers in the international space station? Do I even know what an echo chamber is, exactly? Excuse me while I DON’T Google that). I lolled around on my bed, enjoyed the blessing that is manufactured cold air, and read Kindred in one or two sittings. It was SO good – and when I reread it a few weeks ago, I was hooked all over again by the two-page prologue. This book is fantastic, and I almost never hear of it being included in school curricula. At the school where I taught at the time, we offered it as a choice for the 11th grade summer reading program. I guess all the time travel and whatnot makes it seem like a lightweight choice for a unit on slavery, but there is so much going on here besides just slavery. I think if I were still a department chair, I would make Kindred a required summer reading book, and then we could use the first few weeks of school to discuss it in detail.
(This is the part where I say, But wait! If we assign it to 11th graders, we would have to drop The Things They Carried! And if we assign it to 10th graders, we would have to drop A Prayer for Owen Meany! And we can’t drop either of those! Can we decide that high school is five years long? And now THIS is the part where I remind myself why I am not a teacher and department chair any more. I’ve learned that I can either eat and sleep normally OR I can manage a high school curriculum. I can’t do both. But I digress.)
Kindred is the story of Dana Franklin. In 1976 – her own era – Dana is a writer who has recently married another writer named Kevin Franklin. Their marriage is interracial – Dana is black and Kevin is white – and while there were places in the United States in 1976 where an interracial marriage could have set a couple up for ostracism or attack, Dana and Kevin live in the heart of Los Angeles and feel safe in their marriage, their careers, and their relationship. They are unpacking boxes in their new house when Dana hears a buzzing sound and feels dizzy and then disappears from the house. She reappears next to a river in the very early years of the 19th century. She doesn’t know how she got there, of course, and she doesn’t precisely know that she has gone back in time, though she knows that the people she sees around her seem oddly dressed and unfamiliar. The first thing she sees is a small red-headed boy who is drowning in the river. She jumps in, swims out to get him, and drags him to the shore, where she performs CPR until he is breathing again on his own. Immediately thereafter, all the people nearby go nuts because they think she is hurting the boy. A man aims a shotgun at her, but before he can shoot, she hears the buzzing noise again and reappears in her house in 1976.
It takes a while for Dana and Kevin to figure out what is going on, of course, but I’ll summarize briefly: the boy in the river is Rufus Weylin. Dana knows that a white man named Rufus Weylin is an ancestor of hers – he fathered several children by a free black woman named Alice. Through some strange mystical time-vortex thing (which is never fully explained, but I don’t mind), Dana is called back in time every time Rufus’ life is in danger. She saves him, and then she is stuck in the past until something happens that endangers her life, at which point she is transported back to 1976. On her first trip back in time, she is only in the 19th century for a few minutes. Each time she travels, though, she is stuck in the past for longer periods of time. Ironically, with each visit to the past, she becomes more and more aware of what it going on and more capable of protecting and defending herself – in other words, her own growing competence at living in the 19th century forces her to stay there longer and longer with each visit.
In the 19th century, of course, Dana is assumed to be a slave. I won’t go into details about the life she lives at the Weylin plantation, except to say that Butler does not spare her reader the painful details of the lives of slaves. Dana is whipped raw on more than one occasion and witnesses similar brutal beatings and rapes. On some level, she is protected, since Rufus understands that there is something mystical about Dana that causes her to appear every time his life is in danger; however, she lives, eats, and works with the other house slaves, and she is party to their sufferings and uncertainties.
When Dana does return to 1976, she and Kevin scramble to understand what is going on and to pack a bag of supplies for Dana to keep on her person at all times in case she is summoned again. Kevin forges papers that Dana can use to prove that she is free, although Dana learns that in reality a patroller inspecting the papers of a free black most would most often tear up the papers, re-enslave the free black, and sell him/her for personal profit. Dana does more research on her family history to learn more about the people she meets in the past. Kevin puts together a bag of aspirin, antiseptic, and other first-aid supplies. But mostly they huddle together in terror as Dana attempts to treat her wounds and prepare for her next trip. Each time she travels back in time, several years have gone by in the 19th century, but only several hours or a couple of days pass in 1976. Then – on impulse – when Dana starts to hear the buzzing noise and feel dizzy for the fourth time, Kevin walks across the room and grabs her. This time they both reappear in the 19th century.
I’ve posted before about how fascinated I am by time travel. As far as I’m concerned, the addition of time travel can make good books great and bad books palatable. I mean, The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, Great Expectations? These are all good books – sure. But you know what would make them better? TIME TRAVEL. I’m exaggerating, of course – but only a little bit. What makes Kindred so interesting, however, is not the time travel but the changes Dana sees in herself and, later, in Kevin. She sees herself becoming servile, becoming adept at keeping her mouth shut and dodging blows. In 1976 Dana is strong and bold, but in the 19th century she becomes sneaky, and she hates herself for succumbing to this change. When Kevin joins Dana in the past, he of course is assumed to be a man of stature and power. He announces himself as Dana’s “master” – so he can protect her, of course – but Dana quickly begins to resent the fact that her once-egalitarian marriage has been warped by the past.
This novel is so good. It’s about slavery, of course, but it’s also about gender and marriage and coming into one’s own as an adult and professional not defined by one’s past. By the end of the novel Dana is absolutely in tatters – and so is her marriage. This book is a quick and suspenseful read, perfect for a lazy weekend or a plane trip. Part historical fiction, part sci-fi, and part meditation on identity, Kindred will appeal to a wide variety of readers. I know from experience that teenagers enjoy it. It belongs on school curricula, but it probably won’t get there any time soon, because (understandably, I guess) it’s hard to justify teaching Kindred instead of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a nineteenth-century unit or instead of Invisible Man or Song of Solomon or Beloved in a twentieth-century unit. I get that. But if you’re the kind of person who likes to see good books circulate, pick up a few copies of this one and wrap them up for Christmas. You’ll be glad you did.