Once A Slave…

Octavia Butler’s classic novel Kindred, published in 1979 with a graphic novel adaptation released just last year, uses a sci-fi time-travel frame to produce a powerful take on a historical narrative. The sections of the book are divided by each time Dana goes back in time from 1976 to 1815. Each time she goes back, she seems to stay longer, until after the midpoint, when her visits start to decrease in length. 

The book begins with the first-person narrator Dana noting that she lost an arm on her last trip home. She’s in the hospital being visited by her husband Kevin, whom the police suspect caused her injury, since neither Dana nor Kevin can offer a satisfactory explanation of what happened. 

In Part 1, “The River,” Dana notes that she and her husband Kevin have just moved into a new house the day after her twenty-sixth birthday when she suddenly vanishes from their living room and appears on a wooded riverbank, where she sees a boy, roughly five years old, drowning. She rescues him and gives him CPR despite the boy’s mother thinking she’s killing him. When the boy, Rufus, is resuscitated, a man suddenly appears and sticks a rifle in her face. Scared for her life, Dana suddenly returns home. Kevin says she vanished for only a few seconds, though she was gone for several minutes. 

In Part 2, “The Fire,” Dana is home later that same evening after explaining to Kevin what she experienced when she again vanishes from her house. This time she appears in a room where a boy about eight years old has just set some drapes on fire, and she throws the drapes out the window. Questioning the boy, she discovers that he’s Rufus, the boy she saved from the river, and realizes he’s apparently one of her ancestors–Alice is the mother of her ancestor Hagar–though she’d never realized one of her ancestors was white. She thinks she might have been called back to ensure Rufus’s safety so her ancestor Hagar is actually born (deciding to ignore the paradox that if Hagar failed to be born then Dana couldn’t be there trying to ensure that she could be born). When Rufus directs her to go to the cabin of a nearby free black woman for safety–the mother of his “friend” Alice–some white patrollers have gotten there first, and beat Alice’s father, who is a slave, for coming to visit them without a pass. Later one of the patrollers returns and tries to rape Dana, who suddenly returns home when she knocks him out with a fallen tree branch. Back home, Kevin, who says Dana was gone only for a couple of minutes when she experienced being gone for hours, surmises that Dana is drawn back in time to Rufus when his life is in danger, and returns when her own life is in danger. 

In Part 3, “The Fall,” Kevin ends up coming back with Dana because he’s physically touching her when she’s called back. Rufus, about twelve years old, has just fallen out of a tree and broken his leg. Kevin and Dana, after explaining where they’re really from, end up returning to the house with him, and Kevin is hired on as Rufus’s tutor while Dana helps out the slaves in the house and kitchen, struggling to deal with Rufus’s overbearing mother Margaret. Dana and Kevin live there for some time before Dana is whipped for teaching a slave how to read by Rufus’s sadistic father Tom, and suddenly returns home before Kevin can get to her. 

In Part 4, “The Fight,” Dana is called back after eight days at home when a black man is in the process of beating Rufus to death. The man is Alice’s husband Isaac, who’s beating him for raping Alice. While Alice is free, Isaac is a slave; Dana convinces him to leave Rufus alive to not make things worse for himself, and to flee with Alice while he still has time. Alice is eventually caught and Rufus buys her, her freedom forfeit since she helped a runaway slave. Alice was viciously beaten, but Dana manages to nurse her back to health. Rufus tries to get Dana to talk Alice into sleeping with him without having to be coerced by beating. Five years have passed there since Dana was there last, and she asks Rufus to write to Kevin, who wrote Rufus with his address after he moved north. When Dana eventually discovers that Rufus lied about mailing her letters to Kevin, she tries to run away, but another slave rats her out and Rufus and Tom immediately recapture her, at which point she’s viciously whipped again. Then Kevin shows back up because Tom wrote him to tell him Dana’s back, after finding out Rufus had promised and failed to do so. They try to leave immediately but run into Rufus, who pulls his rifle on them. Dana goads him into almost shooting her so he won’t shoot Kevin, and Kevin manages to fall on top of her when she’s sent back so that he makes it back too. He’s having a difficult time making the transition back home when Dana is sent back to Rufus the next day. 

In Part 5, “The Storm,” Dana appears in a rainstorm and finds Rufus drunk and facedown in a water-filled ditch. Six years have passed. After saving him, she has to nurse him back from an illness she eventually figures out is dengue fever. As soon as Rufus is out of mortal danger, Tom Weylin has a heart attack, and when Dana is unable to revive him, Rufus makes her work in the field as punishment. Rufus’ mother returns and he makes Dana take care of her. The other slaves, particularly Alice, mock her for being too submissive, but Dana still helps Alice with her plans to run away, despite being worried because she’s just had her second baby–Hagar. Rufus sells some slaves he insists are part of a sale his father set up before he died, but then later when a field hand takes an interest in Dana, Rufus sells him too. When Dana challenges him about this, Rufus hits her, breaking the unspoken code between them. Dana slits her wrists with the knife she brought with her to make it back home.  

In Part 6, fifteen days pass in the present before Dana’s called back again on July 4th, but only three months have passed in the past. She discovers that Alice has just hung herself and intuits she was called back to prevent Rufus from shooting himself. She finds out that Alice hung herself after Rufus sold her children, but it turns out Rufus lied about that to scare Alice after she tried to run away, and the children are really with his aunt in Baltimore. Dana convinces Rufus to write certificates of freedom for his and Alice’s two children. When Rufus implies Dana’s going to have to replace Alice and tries to rape her, Dana stabs and kills him. The place where Rufus was gripping her arm during the altercation turns into the wall of her house when she’s sent home, and when she tries to pull free, her arm rips off. 

After her arm heals, Dana and Kevin visit Maryland to search through historical records, discovering a record stating that Rufus died when the house burned down. Dana assumes that Nigel, the slave who she saw saw what she did before she was called back, burned it down to cover what she did. The End. 

Butler could have written a straight-up historical novel about slavery, but that would mean the main character would have to be someone from that time period. By framing her story with the time travel narrative, her protagonist has a different perspective than those around her–for Dana, slavery is even more horrific than it is for the slaves. While the novel is technically sci-fi due to the time-travel element, the time travel itself hardly dominates the story–rather the focus is what’s gained by it, the novel perspective. There is never any explanation offered about how the time travel works or what’s causing it, though Dana does note at the story’s beginning that she’s just moved into a new house; one could speculate that has something to do with it, though there’s no concrete confirmation. The fact that her arm fuses with the house at the end could perhaps be circumstantial evidence of this (literal) connection. Regardless, Butler has provided a powerful symbol that slavery takes something away from you, that you are no longer the whole person you once were once you’ve experienced it. She also provides a lesson in narrative tension and structure by starting the story with the fact that Dana’s lost her arm: she tells us the horrible thing that happens in the beginning, providing a hook to make the reader wonder what happened to cause such an incident that makes them want to keep reading. 

The explanation we do get about how time travel logistics is that Dana travels back to the past when Rufus’s life is in danger and returns to the present when her own life is in danger. These mechanics draw an implicit likeness between these two characters from the beginning, one underscored by the idea that Rufus’s being her ancestor is also part of the reason the time travel is happening. 

From the very first line, Butler plays with the theme of home: 

I lost an arm on my last trip home. 

Though on first read the reader doesn’t know her trip involves time travel, once you do know, the line still reads ambiguously, designating the time she’s traveling to in the past as home, or the time where she lives in the present as home. The word “home” appears in the book 183 times, and for the most part unequivocally refers to her home in the present, in Los Angeles in 1976 with Kevin. But as the book progresses things become muddier, starting with Kevin’s difficult adjustment to coming back after five years in the past: 

“Christ,” he muttered. “If I’m not home yet, maybe I don’t have a home.”

After several trips to the past, Dana notes a sense of relief in seeing the Weylin house: 

I could recall feeling relief at seeing the house, feeling that I had come home. And having to stop and correct myself, remind myself that I was in an alien, dangerous place. I could recall being surprised that I would come to think of such a place as home.

The complications of the home references underscore the difficult fact underlying the book’s whole premise: that without Rufus’s forced subjugation of Alice, Dana’s family would not exist. 

Another tie-in with the confusion-of-home theme is when the text draws likenesses between Kevin and Rufus: 

I was on my back when I came to and there was a white face floating just above me. For a wild moment, I thought it was Kevin, thought I was home. I said his name eagerly.

“It’s me, Dana.”

Rufus’s voice. I was still in hell. I closed my eyes, not caring what would happen next.

“Dana, get up. You’ll be hurt more if I carry you than if you walk.”

The words echoed strangely in my head. Kevin had said something like that to me once. I opened my eyes again to be sure it was Rufus.

Kevin is clearly characterized as a loving husband, but he inadvertently hurts Dana several times. After the very first time Dana disappears, he’s impatient for her to explain what happened: 

“Tell me!” he demanded.

“I would if I knew what to tell you. Stop hurting me.”

Contrast this with Rufus overtly hurting her but still doing so in a way that from his perspective is for her own good: 

Rufus caught me easily and held me, cursing me, hurting me. “You take your whipping!” he hissed. “The more you fight, the more he’ll hurt you.”

Then there’s when Kevin and Dana are finally reunited after having been separated five years: 

And he was off the horse and over the laundry yard fence, pulling me to him before I could take another breath.

The dull ache in my back and shoulders roared to life. Suddenly, I was struggling to get away from him. He let me go, confused.

“What the …?”

I went to him again because I couldn’t keep away, but I caught his arms before he could get them around me. “Don’t. My back is sore.”

“Sore from what?”

“From running away to find you. Oh, Kevin …”

Kevin then wants to enact vengeance on the one who hurt her–Weylin–but Dana discourages him from doing so because she believes that in the long run, such an action would hurt her worse, a repeat of a debate they had from early on in their coming to the past together. Kevin’s potentially making things worse for her with the good intention of defending her underscores the fundamental rift in their experiences of life due to their races.

Then, when Dana and Kevin make it home shortly after that, Dana insists they make love, though Kevin’s afraid to: 

He was so careful, so fearful of hurting me. He did hurt me, of course. I had known he would, but it didn’t matter. 

Rufus’s capacity to hurt is shown to be a product of her resistance in the book’s climax: 

He took my other hand, held it between his own in a grip that I knew would only be gentle until I tried to pull away. … He was not hurting me, would not hurt me if I remained as I was.

This underscores that Rufus’s violence toward Alice and to a lesser degree Dana stem from feelings of love. 

The characterization of Rufus is probably one of the strongest aspects of the book for me. 

And Rufus was Rufus—erratic, alternately generous and vicious. 

Rufus is not an outright monster–his father is much closer to that, though this is also complicated by Tom’s characterization of being “fair,” manifest when he writes to Kevin about her when Rufus doesn’t–but Rufus seems a perpetual child. The fact that we get three episodes of her with him when he’s still literally a child, at ages 5, 8, and 12, help underscore this feeling of perpetual childishness. When we first meet him as a man (though at roughly 17, that term is debatable), he’s just raped Alice, a brutal gesture that’s complicated by the fact that he’s done it out of actual feelings for her: 

“I didn’t want to just drag her off into the bushes,” said Rufus. “I never wanted it to be like that. But she kept saying no. I could have had her in the bushes years ago if that was all I wanted.”

“I know,” I said.

“If I lived in your time, I would have married her. Or tried to.”

The logic that Rufus uses to manipulate Dana is infuriating, like when he tries to convince Dana to talk Alice into not resisting his advances, because if Dana doesn’t, he’ll beat Alice, and why would she do that to her friend? As if Dana is the one responsible for the harm to Alice rather than Rufus. This logic returns powerfully in the climax, when Rufus is about to rape Dana. She has long intimated that they’ve had an unspoken understanding that if he harms her, she’ll harm him in return by not saving his life the next time she’s called back to–this is in large part also why Dana’s experience of slavery is so different from her fellow slaves–she actually has some form of power over Rufus, though this is complicated by her knowledge that if she lets him die, she’ll be doing harm to all the slaves on the property, because they’ll be sold and separated. 

In the climax, when Rufus intimates he’s about to violate their unspoken understanding, she brings up his kids, as if to say, watch what you do, or you’ll kids will end up fatherless: 

[] He took my other hand, held it between his own in a grip that I knew would only be gentle until I tried to pull away.

“Rufe,” I said, “your children …”

“They’re free.”

“But they’re young. They need you to protect their freedom.”

“Then it’s up to you, isn’t it?”

I twisted my hand, tried to get it away from him in sudden anger. At once, his hold went from caressing to imprisoning. My right hand had become wet and slippery on the knife.

“It’s up to you,” he repeated.

“No, Goddamnit, it isn’t! …”

Their complicated relationship is symbolic of the slave’s relationship to their master, of how it’s not just one of pure simple hatred, that there will be moments where each recognizes the other’s humanity–however fleeting these moments may be–and the irony that these fleeting moments of such recognition actually make existence with such an institution more painful, not less.


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