Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Slavery was a long slow process of dulling

I'd been wanting to read Octavia Butler's Kindred pretty much since I finished her Lilith's Brood/Xenogenisis trilogy. Unfortunately, Butler's work is apparently in some sort of Disney vault because I had been having the hardest time finding it, either in the book store or as an ebook. I've also been complaining about how my reading has been too white so the thought of reading another white guy was making me sad so I checked again for Kindred and lo and behold, it was available! And on sale! And I'm so happy.

This was amazing. It's another book I want to just shove in everyone's hands. I was going to say I'd like to drop copies on people from a blimp but that would probably cause a lot of lawsuits, so maybe you could all save me the legal trouble and just get your own.

Dana Franklin, a black woman living in California in 1976 one day finds herself transported to Maryland circa 1815. Not the best time for a black person to find themselves in.* Dana is connected to Rufus Weylin, the son of a slave owner and a distant relative. Whenever Rufus is in trouble he unconsciously summons her to him. She is only able to go back to her own time if she believes she's about to die. While she can be in Maryland for days, weeks or months, she's only gone from California for a few minutes or hours. So here you have the science fiction aspect that you'd expect from Butler. But think of this form of time travel more like King's in 11/22/63. (Or really King's is like Butler's cos her book came out first, but I assume in general the King book is better known.) It's there but the story doesn't dwell on it, and indeed it never ever addresses exactly how it's happening. Because that part isn't important. Dana's time as a slave on a Maryland plantation is.

Butler gives us a slave narrative but by having a modern woman go back and experience slavery first hand we get a modern context to what is going on. We have someone who knows what's going to happen with slavery but learns what the day to day existence is like, not just in terms of the work or living conditions, but in what being treated as a subhuman does to a person. And not only what these people go through, but how easily it's accepted by everyone, slaves and non-slaves. The story is heartbreaking. You see people beaten, families sold apart, woman raped. But Butler keeps the characters complex. It would be easy to just make the Weylins, the slave-owners, ruthless awful people. But they aren't. At least not entirely. There is more to Rufus and even his mother and father than just that single note. And the relationship between the various slaves on the plantation and the Weylins is more complicated than just pure hate. Dana is also surprised by this
Strangely, they seemed to like him [Rufus], hold him in contempt, and fear him all at the same time. This confused me because I felt just about the same mixture of emotions for him myself. I had thought my feelings were complicated because he and I had such a strange relationship. But then, slavery of any kind fostered strange relationships.
This could have been a melodrama. It could have been a story about slavery that was simplified to just black and white issues but instead Butler allows in shades of grey. People are people, and  they are both good and bad within a single person.

I'm sure while reading this I made ridiculous faces because there are so many parts to make you gasp and wonder what will happen next. Because on top of being a wonderful book full of complex characters, it's also a page-turner. Butler, how do you do it? So really, just read this.

*I can't help but think of Louis CK's "white people" bit, about how black people can't get in a time machine and go back much further than the '80s. If you haven't watched this yet, just go ahead and click that link. But do it after you read this post because otherwise you'll get sucked in and end up watching all the Louis CK videos. At least that's what happens to me.

Title quote from page 229/location 2300

Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Beacon Press, 2004. Originally published 1979. Kindle edition.