I expected more from a work that many of the literary powers that be regard as Butler’s best. It is also clearly her most commercially successful, with over 450,000 copies sold. Wikipedia states, it “is still widely popular; it is regularly chosen as a text for community-wide reading programs and book organizations, as well as being a common choice for high school and college courses.”
To be sure, there are elements of the book that are noteworthy. I’d go as far as to say that her premise, and the general outline of the book were both brave and revolutionary when first published in 1979. Kindred tells the story of Dana, a black woman in the mid 1970’s suddenly transported to another time and place; rural Maryland, circa 1820. She finds her life inexplicably linked to that of a young white boy, Rufus, the son of a slaveholding plantation owner. Rufus has the ability, apparently, to “call” Dana across time and space to save him whenever his life is threatened. Dana can return to her own time only when she, in turn, is in danger of losing her life (an expectedly frequent occurrence as she is seen as a slave, a black woman without rights, in Rufus’ time). The structure of the story thus presents myriad an opportunity for plot and character development, for powerful exploration of themes, for beautiful, poignant statements on life and the consequent horrors of our country’s lamentable history. This is where my own opinions diverge from the book’s apparent public reception, because the actual implementation, the writing, the manifestation of the story fail to live up to the potential of such a bold, compelling premise.
Midway through the book I was bored. I wanted to stop reading it. What kept me going, through the numbing prose and the repetitive plot developments, was a looming promise of perhaps something greater, some ending that would make it all worth it. This never came. The climax of the story is both predictable and tired, and when it came I was glad that it simply heralded the end. The epilogue, immediately following the climax, in which Dana returns to the rural Maryland of her own time, had immense emotional potential and instead languishes in grey, anti-climactic mediocrity.
Her descriptions of violence and the subsequent emotions experienced by its victims were dull and flat. Repeatedly, she merely tells us how her characters are feeling, directly, as if describing them in some medical report. When talking about a slave recently captured and wounded deeply, down to the bone, down to the base of her soul, Butler says, merely and mechanically, “She was healing emotionally as well as physically.” At other times Butler seems to go off on unrealistic tangents that really had no bearing on the main themes of the book—such as when Dana is suddenly concerned with the threat posed by mosquitos, malaria and other illnesses and attempts to explain the importance of mosquito netting to an ignorant Rufus and his slaves. Another, glaring lapse is the nearly complete absence of any kind of religious context to the story or the inner lives and emotions of the 19th century characters. Butler and 1970’s-Dana may have been non-religious, but I’m almost positive that her characters, white and black, living in the Southern United States of 1820, were not. They would have viewed Dana and her magical disappearances and reappearances, their slavery, their lives, their sufferings and triumphs all in a Judeo-Christian context. Butler may have left this context out of her story for the sake of simplicity, but such a glaring absence further detracts from the portrayal’s credibility.
Writers should be rewarded for their bravery and ambition. Kindred and Butler should be credited both. And while the greater social context of a story should always be considered in its judgment, nearly forty years has passed since the book’s publication. Today the story needs to stand on its own and in this regard I find it unfortunately wanting.
Will Burcher is a former police officer and current author of “The GAIAD,” a story of ancient secrets not quite forgotten and the positive power of global perspective. He lives and works in Colorado, USA.
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