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Literature / Kindred

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"There are so many interesting times we could have visited."

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 stay in the past becomes 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 was announced in March 2021 and premiered on Hulu on December 13, 2022.

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.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: To survive as a slave, you have to be willing to sacrifice your pride for your life or the lives of those around you. Dana is only allowed a measure of power because Rufus' life depends on her, and even she is reduced to pleading and bargaining more than once for her fellow slaves.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: While Rufus is unable to officially marry a black woman in his time period, this doesn't stop him from pulling off the ultimatum in spirit.
    • He buys Alice and forces her to live with and have sex with him under the threat of whipping her.
    • When Alice breaks down and kills herself, he tries to force Dana to take her place.
  • 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.
  • Bait the Dog: Rufus sometimes seems sympathetic, guilty, or even loving to the slaves he cares about, but when the chips are down and he feels he's losing control, his violence, possessiveness, and racism always wins out. It causes no small amount of trouble for Dana and Alice.
  • Beyond Redemption: Dana initially meets Rufus as a child, and begins to think she can help change him for the better. He still ends up as a cruel, slave-owning rapist, and she agrees with Kevin that he's a lost cause.
  • 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.
  • 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. Dana bitterly notes the hypocrisy of her claiming to dislike white people while preferring lighter-skinned black people.
  • Can't Live Without You: Dana is summoned to the past whenever Rufus is in mortal peril and no one else is around to save him. This is why Tom and Rufus aren't as abusive to her as they are to other slaves, as they know that all she has to do is simply let him die the next time he needs her.
  • 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.
    • During his time Trapped in the Past, Kevin was nearly run out of town by an Angry Mob who (correctly) suspected him of helping runaway slaves.
  • The Chain of Harm: We see this taken to tragic effect with Rufus. His father was an abusive, racist monster who taught his son cruelty and often beat him for minor infractions. Rufus then goes on to become a monster himself, upholding the system of violence and cruelty, going as far as to rape Alice and eventually attempt to rape Dana. He thankfully fails during the second attempt.
  • 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. There are also a lot of slave children running around the plantation with Tom Weylin's features, not that it stops him from selling them.
  • *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.
  • Death Seeker: It's implied that Rufus is disgusted with the monster he's become, and he wants his pain to end, preferably through death. Dana grants him his wish and even lampshades this possibility while reflecting back.
  • 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.
  • Died in Ignorance: Alice takes her own life, believing that Rufus has sold her remaining children. It's revealed that Rufus only sent the children to stay with relatives to temporarily scare and punish Alice, and meant to reveal the truth and bring them back eventually.
  • Die or Fly: The only way Dana can get back to the present is to fear for her life. At one point her terror at being whipped is enough to send her back, while at another point she is whipped but can't get back because she doesn't truly think it will kill her.
  • 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.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Tom Weylin never breaks his word to anyone, white or black. Not because he considers slaves people or anything ludicrous like that, but because he considers promises sacred. When he learns that Rufus tried to renege on a deal with Dana, he forces him to go through with it.
  • Fiery Cover-Up: It's revealed in the epilogue that after Dana killed Rufus, Nigel set the mansion aflame to cover it up. As far as Dana can tell, he succeeded, but he and Carrie aren't on the list of slaves that were sold afterwards and their children are, leaving it unclear what happened to him.
  • 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.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Defied. The novel makes very clear that there is no way to be a slave and be happy. The only reason any slave seems happy with their lot is that their owner is forcing them to behave that way under threat of violence.
  • 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.
    • Laws are worthless unless enforced. The free black people of the South can easily be abducted and resold by slavers because the populace won't prosecute them for it. Dana should theoretically have some protection as a slave who belongs to another man, but in practice Rufus and Tom can do practically anything to her and the fact that Rufus' life hinges on her survival is the only real card she has to play.
  • Harmful Healing: The local doctor believes in bleeding and purging for everything and usually makes things worse for his patients when he doesn't kill them outright. Dana is treated like a miracle worker for her ideas like "disinfect wounds" and "stop using horse medicine on black people".
  • I Have Your Wife: The Weylins make a practice out of threatening their slaves' families, even encouraging them to marry and settle down so they'll be less likely to run. Tom sold three of Sarah's children and let her keep the fourth, supposedly because she was mute but actually so Sarah would know better than to defy him.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Margaret Weylin ends up losing twins in childbirth, which drives her to the depths of insanity. Horrible right? Except she was an unapologetic racist and slaver who callously tore apart families so she could satisfy her frivolous desires and wants.
  • 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.
  • Named by the Adaptation: In the book, Dana's mother isn't named. In the 2022 series, however, her name is given as Olivia.
  • 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.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Kevin's five years in the past are off-page and only a few details are ever given, he spent his time becoming an abolitionist, but he's severely traumatized by it. The few anecdotes he's willing to give are horrific, and it's clear that even while his privilege protected him he witnessed some truly horrific things.
  • 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.
  • Physical Scars, Psychological Scars: Dana loses the arm that Rufus grabbed in his death throes, showing that she'll never be able to recover from her experiences in the past.
  • Prematurely Grey-Haired: Kevin was already going grey in his thirties, but it becomes really pronounced after he's trapped in the past for five years, thanks to the horrors he's seen.
  • 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.
  • Religious and Mythological Theme Naming: Alice names her children Aaron, Miriam, Joseph, and Hagar, since they were all slaves that were eventually freed. Dana wryly notes that it's a good thing Rufus doesn't pay any attention to the Bible.
  • 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.
    • Nigel and Carrie are the only members of the main cast whose fates are left ambiguous.
  • 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.
  • Setting Update: The original novel's present day is set in 1976, while the 2022 series's present day is set in 2016.
  • The Slow Path: Many of the characters in the past note how they grow older while Dana is not eternally youthful, not understanding how less time passes for her in the future. And poor Kevin has to wait five years for her to give him a return trip.
  • 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.
  • Southern Belle: Deconstructed with Margaret Weylin, in the vein of most slave narratives. Her Christian moralizing is deeply hypocritical, the slaves actually keep the household going while she just runs around and gives them orders to pretend she's in charge, she's pretty but also not intelligent, and her temper is less a cute affectation and more a source of terror for the people living under her.
  • 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.
  • The Sociopath: The adult Rufus is a manipulative slaveowner who is completely unapologetic for his actions, and feels no shame in letting Isaac get sold away so he can force Alice to live as his Sex Slave. He says a couple of times that sees Alice and Dana as the same woman, implying that he sees them as interchangeable objects.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: No slave that tries to run away actually makes it.
  • 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.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Rufus slowly loses what redeeming qualities he once had, and becomes yet another monster upholding the system of slavery.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Downplayed with Margaret Weylin. She's still complicit in the slave trade as well as a racist who views black people as less than animals, yet she shows that she is nicer as she gets older and treats Dana with more kindness.
  • Violence Is Disturbing: The first time Dana sees someone get whipped, she's terrified and notes that no movie or tv show reproduction holds a candle to real violence. When she's whipped herself, she's in so much pain she thinks she's dying.
  • Why Did You Make Me Hit You?: Rufus blames Alice for "making" him rape her by refusing him, and later Dana for "making" him be violent toward him for defying him. He seems to genuinely believe it too.
  • 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.