Book Review: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

[This review originally appeared at in June 2004, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary edition published by Beacon Press. You can also read my interview with Ms. Butler here.]

Life is good for Dana, a young black woman living in California. She and her husband have just moved into a new home, and their writing careers are taking off. Suddenly, Dana’s tranquility is shattered, as she finds herself transported from the present (1976) to antebellum Maryland, where she is forced to become both protector and house slave for Rufus, the young son of a plantation owner. Eventually, Dana comes to the realization that Rufus is destined to be her great-great-grandfather, fathering a daughter through one of his slaves.

Thus begins a series of incidences in which Dana is shuttled back and forth between her home in California and her “home” in 19th century Maryland. She is forced to confront the central feature of American history—slavery—in a profound and personal way. 

Kindred, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, is Octavia E. Butler’s masterpiece. This novel is deeply emotional, beautifully written, and its historical context painstakingly researched. As Butler herself has pointed out many times, Kindred is not technically science fiction, since the mechanism by which Dana is transported through time is never explained or rationalized—which makes it all the more frightening. Nonetheless, time travel is central to the story of Kindred, and thus it has developed a cult following among SF&F fans. It is also probably the only “science fiction” novel to appear on the short list of books included in academic programs devoted to women’s studies and black history.

Kindred is more than simply a victimization story of an intelligent black woman ripped from her comfy 20th century existence and thrown unexpectedly into the cruel slave culture of the Old South. We are told in the book’s opening scene that Dana mysteriously loses her left arm as a result of her final return to modern times. Exactly how or why this happens is never fully explained, but perhaps this is a reference to the time when blacks were Constitutionally considered three-quarters of a person (and perhaps it’s a reminder that blacks are still not fully “whole” even today—although why that is could be the subject of hot debate). Dana’s husband Kevin (who happens to be white) is transported back to Maryland with her, giving us a perfect opportunity to contrast his ability to assimilate to a society in which white men are virtual gods.

It’s a shame Kindred has never been adapted as a movie or TV special—it would make an excellent film.  It was, however, adapted as a very fine audio play by the now-defunct Seeing Ear Theatre at [However, in 2022 Hulu began streaming a limited series starring Mallori Johnson and Micah Stock. –JCS]

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