This post is full of spoilers, including how Kindred ends. Looking for a review instead? Find one here.
In Kindred, Octavia Butler explores race, power, history and the art of knowing. Edana, Dana, lives in 1976, having just moved to Los Angeles with her husband. It’s not a spoiler to say that Dana has “hurt” her left arm. What follows is the story of how that came to be.
Pulled Back in Time
Something strange happens to Dana on her twenty-sixth birthday. Inexplicably, she gets pulled out of her time and space to save a little red-headed boy, Rufus. She gives him mouth to mouth resuscitation after be almost drowns. She is jolted back to her home when Rufus’ father, Tom Weylin, points a gun at her. What she experiences as minutes in Rufus time is actually only seconds in her own.
Within the course of less than a month in 1976 time, Dana saves Rufus many times, including from a fire he’d set to the curtains in his room, from fights and a fever. Really, she saves him from his own impulsive, egotistical behavior. He is a man of his time.
The setting is central in Kindred. The time that Dana, a black woman, keeps getting pulled into is the nineteenth century. In a time when black people are property, to be used and abused at the whim and according to the wishes of their master, Dana meets her great-great-grandfather, Rufus Weylin, who she sometimes calls Rafe. She understands that her destiny is tied with his, that he needs to father her ancestor Hagar with Alice before be dies.
Slavery at the Weylin Farm
Each time Dana returns to the Weylin farm, she stays a bit longer. She tries to prepare herself by studying maps of the area, reading the history, and carrying painkillers. She also keeps a knife in her go bag, tied to her in some way so that she can take it back in time.
The striking thing is that Dana thinks she can prepare for slavery. But then her experience of it, over months that she spends at the Weylin farm, is that slavery strips all your power. It burns into your psyche creating self-doubt and fear, fear of pain. She begins to realize that slavery is sustained through torture.
Like the Nazis, antebellum whites had known quite a bit about torture — quite a bit more than I ever wanted to learn.Dana, p. 245
Dana does not escape this torture. During her stay at the Weylin farm with Kevin, her white husband, they must play the role of master and slave. While that affords her some protection, the first time she is whipped, it’s for teaching the slave children to read. She escapes by returning to 1976. Eight days later, when she returns to the Weylin farm, she finds out that 5 years has past there, and Kevin has gone north.
Rafe wants Alice but Alice loves Isaac. That is unfathomable to Rafe, that Alice would choose a black man over him. He blackmails Dana into speaking to Alice to try to convince her to go to him. Rufus wants Alice to submit to him, and Alice agrees to do so after weighing all her options. It’s a “choice” that she makes under duress.
Maybe I can’t ever have that – both wanting, both loving. But I’m not going to give up what I can have.Rufus, to Dana about Alice
“If I ever caught myself wanting you like I want her, I’d cut my throat”Rufus to Dana
Dana waits for Kevin after convincing Rufus to send him a letter. Two letters later, Alice finds the letters in Rufus’ room; he had not sent them. When Alice confronts Rufus, she learns that he doesn’t want to lose her. Being loved by Rufus is a dangerous thing.
Once Dana finds out about Rufus’ betrayal, she decides to run away to find Kevin. She has some knowledge of the are from studying maps. However, one of the slaves betrays her, and she’s found within hours. When she is brought back to the plantation, she is whipped by Tom to teach the slaves a lesson. Running away cannot go unpunished.
Luckily, Rufus’ father has some principles, one of which was to keep his word. He thought Rufus stupid for agreeing to write to Kevin, but since Rufus had, he followed through by writing to Kevin himself, letting Kevin know that Dana had returned. Dana waited two months before Kevin came to find her.
On Being a Fair Man
Again and again, Rufus describes his father as being a fair man. What does it mean to be fair? Did it mean keeping your word, treating black people like property and ensuring that they continued to provide the value you expect of them, sleeping with the black women you own as you wish and selling off their children? Children are a form of currency, a way to increase the owner’s wealth, and a way to keep the parents in line, as they will behave to try to spare their children.
While Tom is a conflicting character, he does seem to be consistent. And perhaps Rufus is too, but we hope for more from him due to his connection with Dana, Yet, he continues to act like a petulant child who thinks of himself first, and only. He seems almost resentful of Dana for saving his life. Or is it that he thinks she owes him her full devotion?
Dana and Kevin Reunite
While Rafe and Tom are gone to town one day, Kevin returns to find Dana. What was only 8 days of separation for Dana was actually 5 years for Kevin. They decide to leave the farm before Tom and Rufus return from errands in town, but come across Rufus along the way. He challenges their departure, saying that his father would want a word with Kevin.
“I already know all I ever want to find out about being a slave,” I told him. “I’d rather be shot than go back in there.”Dana
It gets to the point where Rafe threatens to shoot first Kevin, and then Dana. Dana’s fear for her life let’s her escape back to 1976. Kevin gets on her back just in time to return to 1976 with her. But in a matter of hours, she’s pulled back to to the nineteenth century.
Back in 1976
When Kevin and Dana get back to 1976, they’re surprised that it feels less like home than the Weylin plantation did. Dana realizes that they, especially Kevin, have spent much more time in their alternate lives. Kevin has culture shock, and needs time to acclimatize back to 1976. He tells Dana of watching a woman die in childbirth when her slavemaster beat her until her baby dropped out of her. He also shares that he helped escaping slaves. But neither he nor Dana could escape being scarred in Maryland. Both of them carry physical reminders along with the psychological one.
Kevin, especially has a hard time making peace with being back in 1976. He doesn’t want to be back at the Weylin farm, but is surprised how much it felt like home. Also, 5 years was a long time to spend in the nineteenth century, and he needs to get used to 1976 again and his wife again.
Another Visit to the Weylin Farm
This last time, she finds Rafe face down in a ditch. She pulls him out of the water to go to get Nigel for help. By then, several people had seen Dana appear and reappear and know that her appearance coincides with a death thread for Rufus. As soon as Nigel sees her, he knows Rafe is in danger and hurries to get him home.
Dana nurses Rafe through his illness. Tom refused to pay for a doctor, saying that Dana should be able to use her knowledge to heal him. Dana gets to meet Rufus’ son Joe and starts to teach him. She and Alice reestablish their uneasy friendship. She’s disappointed to realize that her great grandmother is not yet born.
Rufus’s fear of death calls me to him, and my own fear of death sends me home.Dana
Once Rafe gets well, his father has a heart attack. He expects Dana to practice her witchcraft but her mouth to mouth resuscitation is ineffective. Rafe blames her for his father’s see death and sends her to work in the fields. It’s her fast time doing this kind of work and the overseer Fowler whips her to get her to work faster and harder. She learns that he does this to all field slaves on their first day to get them to set a fast pace by which he will continue to assess them. It’s all too much for Dana, between the pain of the manual labor and the whipping.
After a while, it was more painful for me to push myself than it was for me to let Fowler hit me. After a while, I was so tired, I didn’t care either way. Pain was pain. After a while, I just wanted to lie down between the rows and not get up again.Dana
This is a turning point for Dana. She feels betrayed by Rafe. Although he takes her off fieldwork after she faints, he makes his power over her plain. He tells her that he will send her to the fields if she walks away from him. This surprised her and makes her fear him.
Dana, don’t make me talk to you like that,” he said wearily. “Just do what I tell you.Rufus
Rufus demands everything of Dana. Despite his betrayal of her, he expects her to take care of his mother.
Margaret Weylin Returns to the Farm
After two miscarriages, Margaret Weylin went to stay with her sister but is ready to return home once her husband dies. She agrees to have Dana, and primarily Dana, take care of her. Dana sleeps on the floor of her bedroom, feeds her, reads the Bible to her. Dana takes care of most of Margaret’s needs until Rufe decides that he needs her to help him with his communication.
Dana Takes on the Role of Rufus’ Secretary
Kevin would get annoyed that Dana did not want to take care of his communication, and would try to get her to do it. With him, she could refuse, but she has no choice with Rafe. He did offer her a small concession of some paper to do her own writing as well. Dana worked for Rufe by day and took care of his mother at night. She realizes that Rufe sees her and Alice as flip sides of the same coin, that he likes to spend his days with Dana and his nights with Alice.
Rufus as Slave Owner
Dana keeps learning new lessons on slavery. She gets to see her first slave coffle, where Tess was sold. Not only had he Tom raped her, but he’d passed her to his overseer next. Finally she was to be sold.
On this visit, Hagar is born. Alice hatches another plan to run away and gets Dana to steal some of Margaret’s laudanum for her to keep the children quiet. Dana wanted to wait until Alice left, and she started teaching Nigel’s son and two children who served at the table along with Joe. Although other slaveholders and the Methodist minister disapproved, Rafe gave permission.
Sam, one of the slaves, had expressed interest in Dana and she warned him away. But after Sam talked to Dana about teaching his siblings, Rufe somehow found out and sold him. This shocked Dana and she tried to reason with Rafe. Instead he hit her for the first time.
Dana’s relationship with Rufus afforded her some protection, but she was expected to know her place, as a slave in that time. She could get away with sharing food with Rufus and not calling him master, but she needed to play the role of slave around the plantation.
Having enough of slavery and Rufus, Dana decided to send herself home to 1976 and cut her wrist to threaten her life. When she makes it home, Kevin takes care of her. He spares her a hospital visit by contacting a doctor friend to help.
It’s 15 days before Dana is pulled back in time once more. She finds Alice dead, hang by her own hand. She learns that Rafe told Alice he sold her children after she tried to run away. Again, we see evidence of Rafe’s immaturity. He had sent the children to Boston, and miscalculated the impact losing her children would have on Alice. Dana tried to convinced him to draw up papers to free his children.
Rafe tries to convince Dana to stay and mother his children, to take on her half as well as Alice’s half. Dana’s done so much for Rufus, that he doesn’t realize she has some set boundaries, and this is one of them.
When Dana walks away to the attic, Rufus follows her. She makes her decision and uses her knife on him. Once she does that, she returns to her time but pays a price. The part of the arm below where he gripped her as he was dying stayed in the past. She arrived home with her hand in the cement wall.
Dana and Kevin visit Maryland to find out what happened to the Weylins. They confirm that Joe and Hagar were freed, and realize that Nigel set fire to the house to cover the murder. All the slaves were listed as sold except Joe, Hagar, Nigel and Carrie.
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