I was pretty pleased to see that Octavia E. Butler would be the new reading choice. I had recently read Mind of My Mind, which I really liked. I liked its political sci-fi and its Afrofuturist ideas. So this was a great opportunity to read more from her.
I didn’t know what this book was about. The cover of this book gives absolutely no indication is what’s going inside. In fact, it looked pretty much exactly like what is not happening in this book.
Unlike other books that we’ve read for a group read, this one doesn’t lend it self to frivolity or clever post titles. The violence in it is unlike any violence I have read before–and I’ve read some really graphic stuff (yup, American Psycho). But this was worse because it was real. Butler doesn’t do a lot to set up the scene. We have just enough–and probably exactly what a slave would know. The plantation that she is on and virtually nothing behind it.
I just happened to be supplementing this book with the March graphic novels from John Lewis. Having that historical context really fresh in my mind makes this book (written a decade after the Civil Rights Act was passed) seem even more powerful. And really shows how little has changed.
So here’s my contribution with some quotes that I found especially affecting.
I was blown away by the first sections of this book. Butler’s style is not fancy and I found this direct writing to be really effective at conveying what is going on.
Butler basically puts a horrifying slave narrative into a science fiction story.
It starts very abruptly with the prologue. The narrator, Dana says that she lost her arm on her last trip home. The police question her husband Kevin but she assures them it is not his fault.
Then the story resumes with The River. It flashes back to when this all started–June 9, 1976.
In The River, Dana and Kevin are unpacking books in their new California home when suddenly Dana feels dizzy. She is pulled through space into a river where a young red-haired boy is drowning. Dana thinks quickly and stomps into the river to rescue the him. She even does some mouth to mouth
The boy’s mother starts blaming Dana for what’s happening even while she is trying to resuscitate the woman’s son. Dana succeeds and just as the boy, whose name is Rufus comes to, his father holds a shotgun at Dana’s head. What is the black woman (who is dressed like a man) doing with her mouth on his son?
Rufus’s father is Southern and they seem very, very old-fashioned. But just as Dana fear the worst from the shotgun, she flies back to her bedroom. She is covered in mud and soaking wet, but Kevin says she was gone maybe ten seconds. He has a hard time believing her (who wouldn’t) despite the proof of the mud on her clothes.
What in the hell just happened?
Dana’s telling of this story is completely matter-of-fact. It’s almost unthinkable that she isn’t more blown away by everything that just happened. She doesn’t try to figure out why, nor does she try to think of how to prevent it from happening again. She just gets to work preparing in case it does happen again.
And soon enough she is whisked away through space to see Rufus once again in danger. This time, he has set the drapes on fire. He is a little older (but should know better) and Dana arrives in time to toss the curtains out the window before they can light anything else.
Rufus remembers her, sort of. But mostly because both times that she has appeared, he saw her in his mind in her present–in her apartment. Because, yes, this is not just space travel, it is time travel. Dana has flown from 1979 California to 1815 Maryland. Where slavery was still the law of the land and the n-word is thrown around meaningfully.
Rufus likes Dana and he helps her get away from the house and out to the small shack of a free black woman. Having done a little bit of research in her family’s bible, she believes that the little girl in the woman’s house, Alice, may be her great- great- great- grandmother. And that Rufus, although he is white, may be her great- great- great- grandfather.
But how can she explain herself to Rufus or to Alice’s mother or anyone? The state she’s from doesn’t exist yet. And, why would a black woman be so literate and well spoken? Just as she is about to talk to knock on the woman’s door, white men arrive on horseback. They are patrollers
a white man, usually young, often poor, sometimes drunk. He is a member of a group pf such men organized to keep blacks in line…they made sure slaves were where they were supposed to be at night, and they punished those who weren’t. They chased down runaways–for a fee. And sometimes they just raised hell, had a little fun terrorizing people who weren’t allowed to fight back (46).
They drag the woman and her husband out of the house naked and begin to whip her husband. Then Butler writes pretty much exactly what I was thinking as I read what she was writing
I had seen people beaten on television and in the movies. I had seen the too-red blood substitute streaked across their back and heard their well-rehearsed screams. But I hadn’t lain nearby and smelled their sweat or heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves. I could literally smell his sweat, hear every ragged breath, every cry, every cut of the whip. I could see his body jerking, convulsing, straining against the rope as his screaming went on and on. (36)
This passage is unforgettable and it genuinely makes you wonder what the hell was wrong with white people back then that they could do that to another person.
Both of these passages feel eerily prescient to late 2020 and early 2021.
The man is dragged away and one of the patrollers punches the woman in the face, knocking her unconscious. Dana sneaks to the house and helps Alice revive her mother. As they prepare to settle down for the night another white man comes back and this time he goes after Dana.
The man insults her, calls her the n- word in an antebellum-South-you-are-inhuman way. Then he climbs on top of her. She thinks to protect herself and then in another remarkably real moment. She puts her fingers up to his eyes
I had only to move my fingers a little and jab them into the soft tissues, gouge away his sight and give him more agony than he was giving me. But I couldn’t do it. The thought sickened me, froze my hands where they were. I had to do it! But I couldn’t… (42).
This struck me as very believable as well–I think I would have a hard time doing that even if I was in danger.
But as she is panicking, she is whisked back to California and her husband again. This time she’s been gone a few minutes. and she tries to explain what happened again. Kevin is sympathetic but still not really believing–how could he?
The Fall comes next. We learn how Dana met Kevin. In yet more gritty realism (but contemporary), she was working in a dead end job trying to make some money while trying to write. Kevin approached her and talked to her. He is a writer as well and his novel was just accepted. One of the jerks who works with them starts teasing them about them writing chocolate and vanilla porn together. Ugh. They have much in common. Then soon start dating.
In the present, Dana is dragged back once more, but this time, Kevin is close by and he is dragged back with her. At first she doesn’t want him to come–doesn’t want him endangered either. But she then realizes the benefit of having a white man with her.
This time Rufus fell out of a tree and broke his leg–and doctors weren’t exactly safe back then. He was with his friend, a black boy named Nigel.
Nigel runs off to get Rufus’ dad. He comes and is angry. At what the doctor will cost him. At why Rufus was climbing trees. And at why this black woman, this n- word, is holding Rufus’ hand. And who the hell is this white man? They have to think fast and Kevin says that Dana is his property. He gives a crazy story about travelling with intent to sell Dana and Rufus’ father invites them to his plantation.
Dana hopes like anything that she will be sent back home. She assumes Kevin must be with her for then them both to go back together. But nothing is making them go back. Kevin believes that it is the fear of death that will send her back–the gun, the man on top of her. She needs something traumatic to send her home. But nothing traumatic happens. Except every day life as a slave.
Dana and Kevin live there for months.
The indignities mount up–eating the leftovers from the white folks, sleeping on the floor, being treated as a subhuman, having Rufus’ father simultaneously tell her that he would be happy to buy her from Kevin and also that he would like to sleep with her (the man has children with various slave women). Not to mention the daily indignity of Rufus’ mother treating her like garbage (and also hitting on Kevin) despite her claims to being a good Christian woman..
Kevin tries to teach Rufus to read. His parents cannot read and they are angry that Dana is more educated than they are. Dana tries to fit in to help out the slaves, she even teaches Nigel to read. But Rufus’ father threatens her if she doesn’t to knock it off.
In fact, when he sees her reading, he quickly pulls out the whip (that she didn’t even know he had on him) and begins going after her with it. It’s only then that she feels herself being pulled back. Kevin comes running toward her.
And that’s how this reading ends.
I can’t imagine the fear that Dana would go through, especially knowing what could happen to her.
> But this was worse because it was real.
I think what Octavia Butler did with this story – thrust a 1976 Black woman into 1815 slavery – is genius. Not only does she share the visceral reality of slavery, but she contrasts it against the relative comforts of our modern lives. Making the protagonist a modern character creates a familiarity between the reader and Dana and Kevin: we have bookshelves and kitchen gadgets and jobs and rights and freedoms. And then once we’re comfortable in that modern setting — the world we know — we are yanked into a time that’s almost inconceivable to our modern minds. The contrast is breathtaking and horrifying; for a Black woman, it is deadly. For Dana this old world is filled with threat, submission, endless work, dependence on her white man (which real slaves didn’t have that luxury), and violence. In other words, Butler forces us from our modern sensibilities and comforts into this world that did actually exist, she says to the reader, “This is not make-believe. Feel it. This is _real_.”
I’m interested to see how much of a throughline we’re able to trace from the history Butler puts Dana and Kevin in to our modern times, especially since they are a mixed race couple. What residue of that history will Butler share in their modern worlds? She showed their families’ discomfort with them marrying outside their own race, and there are other smaller things, like Kevin expecting Dana to type his manuscripts for him.
You’re completely right about this. I know the story doesn’t “work” if Dana isn’t from the present, but if she had written a slave narrative, I think many contemporary readers wouldn’t feel as engaged with it,
I agree that her writing is incredibly vivid. So much so that I cannot read her in bed. The images she produces follow me into my dreams and disturb my sleep.
I think that there is some meaning to the actual date that Dana and Kevin live in. 1976 was a time of expected renewal. America’s bicentennial was afoot. Commemorative quarters and the reissue of the two-dollar bill pointed to the expected hoopla. Zappa and other social satirist were having a field day, but the mood was upbeat. The last remnants of the Nixon administration had been voted out and the promise of an administration who would base foreign policy on human rights seemed to have pulled us as a nation away from venality and corruption.
Seen from the perspective of the later ’70s (when the book was written), however, those hopes proved unstable. The second oil crisis and the Iran hostage crisis were issues that helped crush that enthusiasm. The dire predictions of the ecology movement seemed no closer to being solved and the rise of Reganism was for one group a blessing and for another group a curse that refuses to go away.
Dana and Kevin live in that pre-fallen world, so their comfort is based on an illusion. Inter-racial couples were rare well into the ’90s. The racism around that was subtle. The common objection was that you put your children at risk of not fitting in to either culture, but the underlying message was that your children will be considered Black. On the other hand, Kevin’s expectation that Dana would type reflects gender roles of the time. It was a common refrain that a woman should never let on that she could type because that would doom her to typing irrespective of where she stood in the company hierarchy.
I am only at The Fire chapter where Rufus has the first conversation with Dana and find it incredibly moving. I thought the conversation is going to be much more awkward but the way Butler portrays has a quality of timelessness. It is interesting how people across time can still communicate well.
Paul, it may interest you to know (though I’d honestly be surprised if you didn’t already know it, so wide is your literary net) that there’s a graphic novel version of Kindred. Could be an interesting companion to the novel and the Lewis graphic novels.
Daryl, I actually only knew about the graphic novel because the novel was checked out and the only had the graphic novel at the library. I dismissed it because I didn’t want to read that first. But you’re right, It is definitely worth seeing after the fact. I’m curious now if the visuals in the book are anywhere near as graphic as they are in my head.