Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Well Thumbed Book: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Publisher’s note:  This is the debut of our new book column, which will recommend one new book each week.  In most cases, the book will be “new” only in the sense that you may not have heard of it before.  Most of the books chosen for review here will be books published some years back:  Some that were popular for a while but have since become obscure; others that have always been undiscovered gems.  By all means,  give us your feedback, not just on the recommended book of the week but on any other similar books you would like to bring to light. assured me that I would like the novel Kindred by Octavia Butler.  I like to rate the books I buy on Amazon, so the automated genies that run the site can recommend books they think I’ll like.  They sometimes recommend books that are way off the mark, but as soon as I looked at Kindred, I knew this time they had picked a winner.  It was a former bestseller--and justifiably so--but while it has won impressive reviews reviews on Amazon and has received critical acclaim from both popular and literary magazines, it has never achieved the kind of blockbuster status of, for example, The Time Traveler’s Wife.  But the book is every bit as good, maybe better.

The story is about a time traveler, a modern-day African-American woman named Dana, who is thrown back to the year 1815, where she saves a young white boy, Rufus Weylin, from drowning.  Minutes later, she finds herself in the present again--but not for long.  She keeps being drawn back to the antebellum South, and she soon realizes that each time she has been summoned to the past to save Rufus--from fire, from being beaten up, from himself--always at great cost to herself.  And yet, save him she must, for Rufus is her ancestor. Once she is in the past, Dana must learn to survive, sometimes for months, sometimes for years, as a slave on the Weylin plantation.

Butler deftly and believably portrays Dana’s difficulties adjusting to her predicament. The complex dynamics among the slaves and the slave-owning Weylins propel the story forward.  Rufus’ inextricable connection to Dana, his savior and sometime-slave, is a relationship more profound and contorted than any other I have read.  Dana is motivated by the hope that she can change Rufus--that she can change the nature of his personality, and get him to understand her humanity.  Is this goal a futile one?  And is a slaveowner’s life even worth saving? These are the questions that lie at the heart of Kindred.

If you want to order this book from Amazon, you’ll have it within a few days, but I do want to let you know what happened to me when I tried to find it at Barnes & Noble.  I looked, but didn’t see it in either the Fiction/Literature or the Science Fiction sections of the store.  I browsed all the Bs of the both sections, carefully scanning the spines.  No Octavia Butler.  I returned home without the book.  I checked online: It wasn’t out of print.

It turns out that Kindred was there all along, hiding in plain sight.  It was in the African American literature section of the bookstore.  In Bernice McFadden’s June 26 Washington Post opinion piece, she critiqued the racial segregation of bookstore shelves.  While such a division can be taken to mean that African American lit has its own special part of the store, it also means that most non-African American browsers like me miss out on some great literature, just because these books have a black protagonist or a black author.  I often meander through bookstores’ fiction sections and pull out whatever books catch my eye, but I never think to cross the aisle and scan the African American lit section.  After all, I’m a white girl, and it seemed to me that the section is there for African American readers, or at least for readers who are specifically seeking books by African Americans, for African Americans.  This form of segregation implies that African American books lack universal appeal, and has the effect of limiting their readership.  And that’s a shame. 
But, as so well exemplified by Kindred, the African American section does have books that can speak to readers of all races and backgrounds.  Just because a book is about African Americans doesn’t mean a white girl can’t enjoy it.  Had Butler’s Kindred not driven me to explore that section, I might not have known of its existence. And I would have missed out on Richard Wright as well as lesser-known authors (like Octavia Butler), had I never strayed from the general fiction section.
Don’t make my mistake.  Venture into the African-American section of the bookstore.  Read Kindred


Karen Adler is a student at Tufts University where she is also a writing tutor and Content Editor of the Tufts Roundtable magazine, a journal of political debate and ideas.  She grew up in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC, and was a frequent visitor to Politics & Prose in North Cleveland Park, Borders in Friendship Heights, and Barnes & Noble in Georgetown.  She is always reading at least one book, if not two or three at once, and loves to recommend books to anyone and everyone.


  1. I love this book. Good choice! What's next week's recommended book?

  2. Thanks! I'm keeping it a surprise--stay tuned!