Book Review: Kindred

Why Does a Harry Potter Group Read Kindred?

I recently led a book discussion of Octavia Butler’s time-travel novel, Kindred. This was not my regular book club or the Anti-Racist Book Club, though the novel could fit well into the reading list of either group. It was my Harry Potter group.

When I sat down ahead of time to come up with some opening remarks and discussion questions, I asked myself why a group dedicated to all things Harry Potter would choose this particular not-very-Harry book to read. I hadn’t chosen it, but I realized there are many good reasons.

Of course, we believe that reading any well-written, thoughtful fantasy gives us a better understanding of the genre and of our world. But why specifically Kindred? This is a book about Dana, a young African-American woman in 1976 Los Angeles who is married to Kevin, a White man; they have just moved into their first house. While unpacking, she suddenly feels dizzy; then she finds herself, with no explanation, outdoors in a wooded area, where a little White boy is drowning in a creek while his mother panics. Dana jumps into the water, pulls him out, and performs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until she gets him breathing again. The boy’s father shows up and holds a gun to her head. And then she’s back in her new house in California, with piles of books on the floor around her, her husband freaking out about how she disappeared and then reappeared a few seconds later on the other side of the room, with her clothes wet and muddy.

This begins a strange and disturbing episode in Dana’s life. She learns that she is somehow tied to an accident-prone boy, Rufus, who is the son of a plantation owner in 18th-century Maryland. Each time she starts to feel dizzy, it’s because Rufus’s life is in danger, and she is called to the past to rescue him. She is Rufus’s protector, and they both believe he will die if at any time she is called to his side and simply refuses to act. So she has considerable power over him. At the same time, as a White boy and the heir to his father’s property, including the slaves, Rufus — even as a small child — also has power over her. In the eyes of the people on the plantation, White and Black, she is a slave, unless she can show paperwork that proves she is a free Black. The book’s graphic depiction of slavery and its nuanced, fully rounded characters make this one of the most realistic novels about slavery you will ever read.

Surprisingly, Kindred and the Harry Potter series share some common elements. Both feature time travel by magical means, a concern with family and ancestry, themes of prejudice and oppression, and a struggle against evil. Both main characters are orphans grew up living with an aunt and uncle who don’t understand them or care to, and who are abruptly removed from what they thought of as everyday life and immersed in a world they did not think was possible.

The tones of the two literary works are completely different. Both books contain magic, but the world Harry enters is decidedly more magical – and to him, preferable to the Muggle reality of Privet Drive. The magical world that lurks around the edges of his ordinary reality has frightening, life-threatening elements, but it is a world he embraces, feels at home in, and will risk his life to save.

Dana’s situation in Kindred is in some ways the complete opposite. The 19th century world she finds herself in is, on the whole, horrifying, especially for a Black woman. And while she arrives there and leaves again via unexplained magical means, there is no magic in the life of the plantation. That’s not to say that everything is bad. Dana forms relationships she cherishes on the Weylin plantation and learns that she can be stronger than she ever thought possible. But the good moments are too sparse to make up for even a fraction of the risks, humiliation, fear, horror, and life-threatening injuries she suffers there. While she, like Harry, is willing to risk her life, it’s not for the same thing. He risks his life to save his new world. She risks hers for her own future and the continuation of her family line, not to save the Weylins’ world and economic system.
The villains in Kindred – mostly Rufus Weylin and his father Tom – are more multidimensional than Harry’s nemesis Voldemort. The whole book is. That’s not a criticism of Harry Potter; it’s just a different kind of book with a different tone, audience, and purpose.

Some Discussion Questions, and My Thoughts on Them

Rufus is a slave owner, a rapist, and a control freak who engages in casual cruelty and shocking acts of vengeance when he doesn’t get his way. Yet he is also capable of love and kindness — on his own terms — and both Dana and the Weylin slaves hate him at the same time that they sometimes feel some affection for him. Discuss the complicated relationship between Rufus and Dana. And between Rufus and others he victimizes.

Dana’s relationship with Rufus is a complex one. He is her ancestor, and somehow that gives him the power to unknowingly call her to him out of 1976 when his life is in danger. When he’s a small child, she appears in time to save him from drowning. When he sets his room on fire a few years later to get back at his father, he loses control of the fire and she arrives to put it out. When he falls from a tree and breaks his leg, she and Kevin are there to help him. Rufus known he will die if she just shows up but simply refuses to save his life. So he needs her. But he is White and she is Black, so at the same time that he is in her power, she is in his.

Dana is horrified by much of what Rufus says and does. She remarks on his aptitude for vengeance from the time he is a child. She surprises him by standing up to him when he addresses her in a disrespectful way. And by telling him where she’s really from. She still thinks of herself as his equal, but he is White, a boy, and a Weylin, so he has power over her.

She also feels sorry for him because of the cruel way his father treats him. Tom Weylin knows she can read, and he agrees to let her read to Rufus while his broken leg heals, while Kevin is employed as Rufus’s tutor. Weylin has become convinced that Rufus is not very smart, and wants him to learn as much as he can to give him a competitive edge when he is in charge of the plantation.

As he grows older, Rufus gains more real power and becomes more dangerous. Despite the fact that he knows his life depends on Dana, his anger and entitlement sometimes push him to punish her in ways that could alienate her forever and result in her refusing to save his life the next time she has the chance. He knows this, but he can’t always put aside his sense of superiority. He is used to having Black people defer to him, not challenge him. When, in a fit of anger, he sends her to work in the fields, he knows the overseer will treat her abominably.

When Kevin is trapped in this time period, somewhere up North, Rufus promises to mail a letter to him, and tells Dana that he did. When Dana learns that he lied, she runs away, but is captured, dragged back to the plantation, and beaten.

After Alice’s death, Rufus turns to Dana for sex. She has acted all along as his surrogate mother, sister, teacher, and friend. Now he wants a sexual relationship. Alice, of course, is Dana’s ancestor. And there is a striking resemblance between them. That resemblance is not lost on Rufus. When he tries to rape her, Alice’s baby Hagar has already been born, so Dana no longer needs Rufus alive. She stabs him, and Nigel burns down the house to make it look like he died in the fire.

One of the most disturbing — and disturbed — characters in the book is Rufus’s mother, Margaret Weylin. Why is she the way she is?

Tom Weylin came from a lower-class family, but gained control of the plantation when he married his first wife. Hannah, who owned the plantation herself, was genteel, educated, and popular among the slaves. After her death, Tom married Margaret, an uneducated social climber like Tom. Rufus is their child. While Tom treats Rufus cruelly, Margaret’s love is downright stifling. She is bored, petty, and self-centered. She hates Dana because she has a crush on Kevin and Kevin has the gall to love a Black woman instead of responding to her advances. She also hates Dana because she resents the fact that a Black woman is better educated than she is, and that her son Rufus prefers Dana’s company to her own.

Mostly, Dana thinks, Margaret is grief-stricken and rather unhinged since her other children died as babies; she has never been the same sense. In addition, she is just plain bored. The slaves do all the work, her husband and son ignore her, and she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Perhaps Rufus have had a chance to grow up to be a better man than his father if he had been Hannah’s son instead of Margaret’s, and if Hannah had lived to raise him? Her influence could have made a real difference in his character.

Dana says that Rufus’s father, Tom Weylin, “wasn’t a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper.” Do you agree?

We can easily see Tom Weylin as evil. He owns slaves, he beats them mercilessly when he thinks they deserve it, he rapes them, and he has no compunction about selling off a woman’s children so she will never see them again. He also behaves cruelly toward his son; when Rufus is just a child and breaks his leg, Tom is more concerned about how much a doctor will cost him than about his son’s injury and pain.

Despite his disturbing cruelty, he does have a rather bizarre sense of honor. In particular, he believes in keeping his word – and forcing his son to do the same. He intervenes when Rufus hides the letters that he told Dana he would mail to Kevin for her when Kevin is stuck in 18th century New England. It’s not that Weylin believes it’s a good idea to let her write to her husband. He does not. But he cannot condone Rufus promising to mail the letters and then telling Dana he has done it when he never intended to keep his word. Tom actually seems to feel sorry for Dana in this case. But he doesn’t care that she has no way of contacting the only person who can really help her; he only cares that his son broke a promise.

Another place we see Tom Weylin’s twisted sense of honor is in his relations with Kevin. When he thinks Kevin owns Dana, he is fine with Kevin’s supposed plan to take her down South and sell her where he can get a better price. But he strongly disapproves of Kevin promising her that he’ll free her down South while all the while he is secretly planning to sell her off instead. (Of course, that’s all a fiction, because they are passing themselves off as owner and slave, because they can’t let anyone know they are husband and wife.) Weylin’s opinion of Kevin drastically changes when he thinks Kevin is a man who will promise a slave one thing, yet do another.

In fact, if I had to name another piece of literature that Tom Weylin would feel at home in, it’s not Harry Potter. It’s Game of Thrones. Westeros is a society with a sense of honor that’s similar to Tom’s, a concept of honor that can condone murder and rape, but that considers breaking a promise to be an unforgiveable offense. Remember the story of the Rat King, who was punished by the gods not for committing murder, but for breaking the contract of hospitality with a guest. And Jamie is branded a man without honor for killing a king after promising to protect him – even though everyone knew the king he killed was prone to torturing and killing his subjects on a whim. The killing isn’t what bothered people (if that was it, then Robert Baratheon would have been reviled for it, too, yet he was celebrated for it). The problem was that he made a vow and broken it, the only really unforgiveable sin in Westeros. This is the same kind of logic that motivates Tom Weylin to contact Kevin when he learns that his son promised to but did not. He didn’t do it because it was the right thing to do. He did it because he felt his son’s broken promise as a stain upon the family honor.

While we’re on the topic, what else have you read that Kindred reminds you of?

Slave narratives certainly. Kindred is, in some ways, a fictionalized version of classic slave narratives. But it is also a lot more than that. The time-travel element and connection to the present put it in an entirely different category.

I could draw parallels between Kindred and other time-travel stories, such as Outlander, though Outlander is a much-romanticized version of the genre.

Some of Connie Willis’s time-travel books would be a closer match, especially The Doomsday Book, in which the time traveler goes back to the Middle Ages and the Black Death. It’s certainly a much closer fit in terms of tone, with true horrors that the traveler had read about but could not really understand without experiencing them herself. In Willis’s books, time-travel does not happen as a result of some mysterious phenomenon that is never explained. Her characters are professors and graduate students at an Oxford University of the future, where the best way to learn about history is to use the department’s time machine to travel back to the time period being studied – again, to learn what cannot be fully understood about the past by reading a book.

But the closest parallel I can come up with for Kindred is a novel that includes both the horrific, gut-wrenching scenes of a dark past and an unexpected, little-understood method of traveling to the past. The book is Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic. In it, a young girl named Hannah is annoyed at having to spend Passover with her family, especially the elderly relatives she finds tiresome, when she would much rather be having fun with her non-Jewish friends. Then she finds herself in 1942, in a town on the Polish/German border, where the Jewish population is being rounded up and transported to a death camp. In the camp, she experiences first-hand the horrors her ancestors lived through, in a way that reading about it could never bring home to her. And, like Dana, she comes to understand not only the fear and deprivation, but the moral compromises that oppression and cruelty can force upon their victims.

That shifting of right and wrong is one of the hardest things for Dana to deal with on the Weylin plantation in Maryland. She feels terrible about agreeing, for instance, to try to convince Alice not to resist Rufus’s attempts to rape her. Rufus expects her to be complicit in her friend’s rape. And while she hates it, she does what he wants.

She doesn’t do it for him, of course – despite the fact that she finds herself liking him at times, as much as she doesn’t want to. She does it because she believes it is the only way to ensure that Alice gives birth to her and Rufus’s child, Hagar, who Dana has identified as her own ancestor. Hagar’s birth is crucial for preserving her family line and ensuring her own birth, no matter what it costs Alice. Dana knows she is compromising her own principles, and she hates herself for it. But she believes it is necessary.

That is not the only time Dana does something she believes to be immoral. But it takes her some time to reach a place where she is ready to compromise her principles. On an early trip to the past, when she is attacked by a White man intent on raping and probably killing her, she thinks of gouging his eyes out, but cannot bring herself to do it. In Los Angeles afterwards, when Kevin asks her if she could kill a man if she had to, she says, “Before last night, I might not have been sure, but now, yes.” Already, she has faced the fact that her own survival in a world in which she has no power and no protection might require her to do terrible things that her 1976 self would never consider. When she murders Rufus at the end of the book, she is committing an act that present-day Dana never believed she was capable of.

She hates these compromises of her own ethics, but even more, she hates the system that she feels has forced her to make such decisions.

In Yolen’s book, the girl Hannah soon learns that her best chance of surviving a concentration camp is to do as she’s told, keep her head down, and not risk being noticed by trying to help others, even if she knows it’s the right thing to do. The first rule of The Devil’s Arithmetic the title refers to says that every time someone else is killed and you are not, you increase your chances of surviving a little longer.

It’s not only the victims of oppression who are forced to compromise their ideals in Kindred. When Kevin travels with her to the Weylin plantation, they both realize they’ll have to play the parts of owner and slave, as distasteful as it is to them both. Dana worries about what will happen if he has to stay in the 1800s, how living as part of the oppressor class in this time and place might change him. Kevin does end up stranded there, when he can’t reach Dana in time to travel back home with her. How do you think Kevin is changed by living in this society for five years? How would the story be different if Kevin were Black?

How do the different slaves on the Weylin plantation manage to survive?

Unlike a lot of literature about the antebellum South, Kindred presents the slave characters as real, complex people, not stock characters. And their attitude toward survival varies.

Luke, for example, says “Yes, sir,” a lot, but then defies the Weylins by going ahead and doing what he wants. He advises his son Nigel, “Don’t argue with white folks… Don’t tell them ‘no.’ Don’t let them see you mad. Just say ‘yes sir.’ Then go ’head and do what you want to do. Might have to take a whippin’ for it later on, but if you want it bad enough, the whippin’ won’t matter much.” He acts as an overseer in many ways, and keeps the plantation running smoothly, so he is allowed more latitude than a less productive slave might be given. But in the end, none of that matters. He is sold off anyway.

Luke’s fate brings home the fact that a slave’s behavior guarantees nothing. Weylin’s slaves are whipped or sold off for disobedience and for lack of productivity, but they are also sold off for offenses that exist only in the owner’s head (as when Rufus sells Sam South in a fit of jealous rage, because he imagines that Sam wants to be involved with Dana), or just because someone needs the money (as when all of Sarah’s children except the “defective” Carrie are sold). Tom Weylin uses Tess for sex, and then loses interest in her and passes her on to the new overseer, Jake. When he also loses interest, she is sold too. She did nothing wrong. She followed orders, did not fight their sexual advances, and even tried to make herself more valuable to them by informing on Dana. In the end, none of it mattered. Slaves can do everything right; they still have no control over their fate.

What about Sarah? Literature about life on an antebellum plantation often includes a slave we’ve come to think of as the “Mammy” character, the mother substitute to the young White and Black characters alike. She gives them treats in the kitchen, dries their tears, and loves them all as if they were her own children. The archetype was probably created by White people who were trying to come to grips with our country’s slave past by convincing themselves that slavery wasn’t so bad. Sarah comes across as a much more realistic take on this role. How is Sarah both like and unlike this traditional character?

Sarah is the cook, supposed ruler of the cook house – though everyone knows her power is limited, at best. She does her job, and she does it well. She has a genuine fondness for Rufus, though she knows better than anyone what he will turn into as he grows out of childhood and gains real power. Underneath her hardworking, compliant demeanor, Sarah seethes with rage. Rufus’s father sold her children – all of them except her mute daughter, Carrie – because his second wife, Margaret, wanted to buy more expensive dishes and other items for the house.

The cook house Sarah presides over feels at first like a safe haven to Dana, a place where the slaves can speak with each other with no fear of being overheard. Dana even uses the space to teach the boy Nigel to read, because everyone assures her that Tom Weylin and his wife never, ever come into the cook house. When Tom does walk in on their lesson, Dana is punished severely, reminding her that even in the cook house, she cannot let her guard down. For a slave in 19th century America, there are no safe places.

What is the role of Carrie in the narrative?

The slave Carrie is intelligent, but because she is mute, most people, especially White people, assume she is slow or backward (when they give any thought to her at all). Carrie can hear and understand, and often understands more than those around her. We don’t always know what she is thinking. But she can communicate only through expressions and her own unique sign language.

So, Is her disability a curse or a blessing? Because a mute child would not command a high price on the market, Weylin did not sell her when he sold off her brothers. But she’s a hard worker who clearly sees Dana as a friend.

There is another reason why Weylin allows Sarah to keep her daughter Carrie. Weylin is a shrewd slave owner who understands that family will often keep even a rebellious slave from running away or misbehaving. Carrie is a good worker, but her mother is of enormous value to Tom Weylin. Leaving her one child helps to ensure her obedience; she would not run away and leave her only remaining daughter, and she would not defy her master, knowing her daughter could be sold away as punishment. So family can be a double-edged sword for slaves on the Weylin plantation. A spouse and children can be a source of comfort but can also be turned into an instrument of oppression. After Nigel’s father Luke is sold off, Nigel could become rebellious and try to run away. The Weylins know this, and encourage his marriage to Carrie, even allowing them a real ceremony with a preacher. Once Nigel has a wife and children, they believe, he will be more tightly tethered to the plantation and accepting of their control, unlike his rebellious father.

Trace Alice’s relationship with Rufus. Why do you think Alice killed herself? Does Dana bear some of the responsibility for her death? What is the effect of her suicide on Rufus?

Alice and Rufus were best friends as children. She was a free Black girl. He was the White heir apparent of the Weylin plantation and its slaves. Even when they were children, there was a power imbalance, but as they grew up, that imbalance widened as he came into real power. Alice trusted him when they were children. When Dana arrives at the home of Alice and her mother, she says Rufus sent her, and Alice is relieved, telling her mother it was OK, that Rufus would never tell his father.

But when Alice falls in love with Isaac, a slave on a neighboring plantation, and marries him, Rufus is enraged. His sense of White male entitlement tells him that Alice is his, and nobody else’s, despite the fact that she is free and legally allowed to marry Isaac if Isaac’s master has no objection. When Rufus rapes Alice to assert his claim on her, a claim with no basis in reality, Isaac fights him. It is only Dana’s intervention that keeps Isaac from killing Rufus. And it is Dana who convinces Rufus to let the couple run, rather than alerting the slave catchers to their flight. Instead, he explains his injuries by saying a group of White strangers got him drunk and beat and robbed him.

When the two are caught a few days later, both are beaten severely. Isaac is sold South, but Rufus buys Alice himself, getting exactly what he wanted all along – control over her, though she was born free.

Eventually, Alice sees no option but to give in to Rufus’s desire for her, rather than being taken by force each time. She seems to have settled into her new life as his mistress. She hates it, but she loves her children, and she is resigned to being with Rufus, who even shows signs of loving his children by her. Then he punishes her by telling her he has sold her children, though it’s a lie. Rufus forgot the lesson his father taught him about children giving a slave a reason to stay. She had already lost her freedom, Isaac, and her self-respect. Losing her children as well leaves Alice with no reason to go on.

Discuss the novel’s theme of home and belonging.

At one point, Dana is surprised to realize that she has actually come to think of the Weylin Plantation as home. The fact is, she has not really had a home for most of her life, so it is not surprising that the plantation might fill that role. She is estranged from the aunt and uncle who raised her, who never really understood her or even tried to. So she has lost access to the home where she grew up. And she is just moving into her new house in Los Angeles when she begins time-traveling. So she doesn’t have a place in 1976 that feels like home.

Mostly, she finds it frightening how easy it is to fall into acceptance not only of living on an antebellum plantation, but of being a slave. Overhearing the children playing slave auction brings this home to her in a deeply disturbing way, though Kevin doesn’t seem to think it’s that big a deal. However much he is horrified by what he sees in the 18th century, he isn’t Black. Living in the midst of slavery will never mean to him what it means to Dana. He can remain detached in a way she never can.

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