Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

July 17, 2020 · 5 min read

Kindred (1979) is a feminist African-American science-fiction novel written by Octavia E. Butler. Set between nineteenth-century Maryland and twentieth-century Los Angeles, the story uses time travel to explore a slave narrative about Dana Franklin an African-American woman. On her twenty-sixth birthday, Dana, a free woman in 1976 Los Angeles, is suddenly sent back to 1815 Maryland. Dana finds herself at the Weylin plantation, where she is a pre-Civil War slave. As Dana struggles to adjust to her ancestral cruelty, she explores the roots of her identity, finding the inner strength to overcome the hardships of slavery. The popular novel has been hailed as “a shattering work of art” by the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and “one of the most original, thought-provoking works examining race and identity” by The Los Angeles Times.

Narrated in the first person by African-American protagonist Edana “Dana” Franklin, the story begins in Los Angeles on June 9, 1976. Dana celebrates her twenty-sixth birthday with her white husband, Kevin Franklin, by moving into their new apartment. While unpacking, Dana becomes dizzy and suddenly finds herself whisked away to Maryland in the early 1800s. Dana spots a young white boy flailing in the river wades into the water and brings the unconscious boy back to the shore before reviving him. Dana learns Rufus is the son of Tom Weylin. Tom arrives and trains his gun on Dana, which terrifies her. Dana suddenly awakes to find herself back in 1976.

Minutes pass before Dana becomes dizzy and disappears again. This time, she finds herself on a slave plantation in 1815 Maryland. Rufus, now a few years older, watches as the drapes of his bedroom burn; he lit the fire in rebellion after Tom refused to buy him a horse that he wanted. Dana extinguishes the fire, speaks with Rufus, and then flees before Tom finds out she’s present. Dana goes to the house of Alice Greenwood and her mother, free black women whom Dana suspects might be her long-lost kin. A gang of white men storms the house, pulling Alice’s husband, a slave, out of their house and badly beating him. They also abuse Alice’s mother, whom Dana consoles when the gang leaves. Dana goes outside and is caught by a white man who beats and nearly rapes her. Mortified, Dana suddenly awakes back in 1976.

The next time Dana travels back to Maryland, she brings Kevin with her when he clings to her body at the moment she leaves. Dana convinces Kevin to pose as her owner, allowing them to blend in and live on the Weylin plantation unscathed. Rufus suffers a broken leg after falling from a tree. Nigel, a young black boy, informs Tom about his son’s injury. Tom arrives with a slave named Luke. Rufus refuses to let Dana leave again, so she and Kevin stay on the plantation and begin to teach Rufus how to read. When Dana is caught instructing Rufus, Weylin brutally whips her. Dana is sent back to 1976 Los Angeles, but this time, Kevin, not able to cling to her in time, is left behind.

Eight days pass before Dana is shunted back to Maryland for two months. She learns Kevin has fled, and Alice has been raped by Rufus. Isaac, Alice’s husband, is attacking Rufus when Dana returns. Dana persuades Isaac not to kill Rufus. Alice and Isaac escape. Dana gets Rufus home safely. Although Rufus lies about the cause of his injury, Alice and Isaac are eventually apprehended. Alice is brutalized by a pack of dogs and made a slave as punishment to Isaac for attempting an escape. Rufus cannot stomach this and buys Alice out of love. As Alice recuperates, Rufus pressures Dana to convince Alice to sleep with him. Dana discovers Rufus has not sent the many letters she wrote to Kevin, as promised. As a result, Dana attempts to flee. When she is caught, she is so brutally whipped that she does not dare try it again. Tom summons Kevin by letter, and Kevin arrives to bring Dana back to Los Angeles. Dana and Kevin survive a shootout by Rufus, who attacks them on the side of the road. The couple returns to 1976.

A few days pass before Dana returns to Maryland, finding Rufus drunk and lying in a puddle. Tom refuses a medic, so Dana slowly nurses Rufus back to health. Although he recovers, Rufus remains in the hospital for weeks. During this time, Tom suffers a heart attack, which Dana fails to save him from. Blaming Dana for Tom’s death, as punishment, Rufus consigns her to fieldwork until she faints. Alice gives birth to Rufus’s second child, Hagar, who is a direct descendant of Dana’s. Alice, jealous over the way Rufus treats Dana, plans to leave Rufus because she has grown too close to him. When a slave named Sam flirts with Dana, Rufus sells him as punishment. Dana tries to stop him, and Rufus strikes her. Dana slashes her wrists in the hope of returning to 1976. It works.

Within a few days of returning home, Dana has a fight with Kevin about Rufus. Finding Kevin’s jealousy of Rufus silly, Dana returns to Maryland. She learns that Rufus has told Alice he sold her children as punishment for trying to escape; in reality, the children are in Baltimore with his aunt. Beset with grief, Alice commits suicide. Rufus nearly kills himself out of guilt and anger. Days later, Rufus berates Dana for being like Alice, and she flees to the attic. Dana attempts to slash her wrists and time travel again, but Rufus corners her and tries to rape her. Dana fatally stabs Rufus twice with her knife as he grabs her arm. Dana finally returns to 1976 with her arm severed.

Kindred was adapted as a graphic novel in 2017 by author Damien Duffy and artist John Jennings. It debuted at number one on The New York Times hardcover graphic book bestsellers list.