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Literature / Kindred

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"There are so many interesting times we could have visited."
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Kindred is prolific sci-fi writer Octavia E. Butler's best selling novel.

It follows a young African-American writer, Dana, who inexplicably finds herself being shunted in time between her Los Angeles, California home in 1976 and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. There she meets her ancestors: a proud black freewoman and a white planter who has forced her into slavery and concubinage. As Dana's stays in the past become longer, the young woman becomes intimately entangled with the plantation community. She is forced to make hard choices to survive slavery and to try and return to her own time.

First published in 1979, it is still widely popular, as well as being a common choice for high school and college courses.

A graphic novel adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings was released in 2017. A live action series adaptation for FX was announced in March 2021.

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This novel provides examples of:

  • Accidental Time Travel: Dana has no control over when she gets pulled into the past or returned to the present and has no idea what causes it. She's left living in fear of the next incident.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Dana's husband is 12 years older than her.
  • An Arm and a Leg: The prologue starts with Dana in the hospital after she mysteriously lost her arm. It's revealed to be because it was trapped in the wall after her last trip to the past.
  • Attempted Rape: At the end of the story, after Alice dies, Rufus corners Dana and tries to coerce her into sex. She fatally stabs him in response.
  • Big Bad Slippage: When Dana first meets him, Rufus is just an accident-prone boy who is revealed to have the power to bring her to his time whenever he feels threatened. He grows up to be a vicious, cruel slave owner who will do anything to keep her with him permanently.
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  • Bigot with a Crush: Rufus is a white slaveowner’s son who becomes attracted to and possessive towards Alice and Dana, both of whom are black.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Dana ends up killing Rufus when the latter tries raping her, and that sends her back to the present, albeit with her arm stuck in the wall. From what we hear, it's not her dominant hand so she can still write, and clears Kevin's name when the hospital doctors suspect him of abusing her. She and Kevin are free, but stuck with the trauma of what happened in the past, and neither will be driving anytime soon. Kevin reassures her she did the best she could, and it's okay to feel unsatisfied.
  • Black Gal on White Guy Drama: Dana and Kevin, see Maligned Mixed Marriage below.
  • But Not Too Black: Only Dana's aunt favors Dana's and Kevin's marriage, as it would mean that her niece's children would have lighter skin.
  • Category Traitor: Dana takes some heat from the other slaves because she works so closely with Rufus and his father. They get over it when another slave rats out her plan to run away and reunite with Kevin; Liza then is forced to work with most of her teeth missing.
  • Child by Rape: All of Alice's children were conceived from being forcibly impregnated by Rufus, which in turn makes Dana's entire family tree a product of rape.
  • *Click* Hello: Dana meets Tom Weylin this way after she saves his son, Rufus.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Rufus allows Alice’s husband Isaac to get sold away so he can have her to himself, and later threatens to shoot Dana’s husband Kevin. He also sells away one slave, Sam, just for talking to her.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The first sign that Dana has traveled through time as well as through space is Rufus's casual use of the N-word and his innocent confusion when Dana gets offended by it.
  • Double Consciousness: Dana is a 1970s black woman transported back to the antebellum south, where she has to masquerade as a slave, causing a lot of conflict between her 'liberated' self and the demeanor she has to adopt to survive as a slave.
  • Driven to Suicide: Alice hangs herself when Rufus lies that he sold their children away.
  • Entitled to Have You: Rufus to Alice, his childhood friend and Dana's ancestor, and Dana.
  • Foil: Kevin Franklin, a relatively progressive white man who married a black woman despite the objections of his family, to Rufus, an inconsistent power-drunk slave owner, and Dana’s ancestor.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: A few are brought up:
    • There is no such thing as a good slaveowner. When Dana realizes that she has a positive influence on Rufus, she hopes to convince him to be better than his father and maybe subvert the system. (She realizes he's going to be worse than Tom when she fails to save his father from a heart attack, and Rufus sends her to the fields to be whipped even though Dana told Rufus several times that heart attacks are fatal and there are no miracles).
    • You do what you can to survive and protect others, at the cost of your dignity. Dana considers how her generation disparaged the "mammy" stereotype of the happy slave. She learns that some slaves don't have a choice but to put on those airs; you may end up in the fields if you don't appear grateful for things like new clothes and getting spared whippings.
    • People's morals are made by their circumstances, and you can't always overcome this. Rufus had a tender side as a child, but life in the Antebellum South beat his empathy out of him and led him to become just another cruel slaveowner. Meanwhile, Kevin began to be slightly swayed by the arguments of the slaveowners and downplay slavery when he was stuck in the past. Fortunately, Dana put a stop to this, but it's still a chilling reminder that anyone could lose their decency in an indecent society.
  • Let Me Get This Straight...: Kevin seriously asks Rufus if he's thought through asking a married man to carry his free wife back to a house where she was enslaved and whipped, and threatening them with a gun. Rufus doesn't get it, trying to order Kevin around.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Both of Dana's and Kevin's families opposed the marriage due to racial bias. While Kevin's reactionary sister is prejudiced against African Americans, Dana's uncle abhors the idea of a white man eventually inheriting his property. Kevin and Dana marry without any family present.
  • No Equal-Opportunity Time Travel: The novel covers the perils of time traveling while black — the black protagonist goes to 19th-century Maryland to meet her ancestors, one of whom is a white slave owner. Drama ensues.
  • Only Sane Man: Kevin immediately pegs that Rufus is a threat, young or old, and advises Dana he's not worth saving. He goes You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me! when Rufus tries holding him at gunpoint to make him bring Dana back to the Werlin house.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Rufus' change from being a Bratty Half-Pint to a true monster is marked by his trying to, and eventual success in, raping Alice. His relationship with Dana ends when he mounts her and gets stabbed in return.
  • Replacement Goldfish: After Alice's suicide, Rufus sees Dana as a replacement for Alice. She stabs him fatally, in response.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Dana's Accidental Time Travel is the only supernatural phenomenon in the story. She never learns what causes it and gives up on trying to understand it.
  • San Dimas Time: Whenever the protagonist is dragged back in time to save Rufus, the time that passes in the present before her return is compressed but proportional to how long she spends in the past. When, for example, she spends a few minutes in the past, she disappears in the present for a mere second or two, but when she accidentally leaves her husband in the past, she spends three weeks in the present before going back and learning that her husband has been stranded for over five years.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Rufus has an uncanny ability to get along with slaves even when they know he can torture and sell them away. This ends up fueling Alice's desire to escape because she's afraid that she could actually fall for him even after losing her husband thanks to him.
  • Speculative Fiction: Kindred is often seen as either Science Fiction (due to the Time Travel, despite the fact that no explanation is ever given) or African-American fiction (because it's about American slavery), and thus Lit Fic. Butler herself saw it as fantasy, which makes sense considering the time travel was not scientifically explained and mainly talked about in mystical terms.
  • Sympathetic Slave Owner: Deconstructed with Rufus, who's initially framed as a kinder person than his plantation owner father. As he grows up, his regard for Dana as a person is superseded by his sense of entitlement to her as a possession (even though he has no legal claim to her), even while he earnestly believes that his occasional kindnesses make up for him laying claim to her entire life and even make her privileged.
  • Tele-Frag: Dana loses her arm when it fuses with a wall upon her return to the present.
  • Yandere: Rufus is romantically obsessed with both Alice and Dana and is willing to rape both. Towards the end, he says he would be happy for either Dana or Alice to have killed him.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside:
    • Dana's flashbacks last anywhere from a day to eight months, but in the present she's only gone for a few hours at most.
    • Kevin, her husband, gets left behind in the past. Dana spends a few weeks in the present waiting for a chance to go back and rescue him, and when she finally does, he's spent five years in the past.


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