Route 1 Reads: Kindred by Octavia Butler

September 9, 2015
by Courtney Hobson

When I first learned of the Route 1 Reads project, I was intrigued by this multi-state literary project. Various iterations of literary road maps popped up on the internet over the summer. My intrigue turned to delight over the Maryland selection for the project: Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Mention of a travel book brings to mind Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. While those books inspire feelings of wanderlust as one travels across the country or around the world as a means to find oneself, the journey that Dana Franklin, Kindred’s protagonist, goes on is dictated by space and time.

Kindred tells the story of Dana Franklin, a young African-American woman living in California, who is unwittingly transported back in time to the Weylin plantation in antebellum Talbot County, Maryland. Over the course of multiple journeys, Dana meets her ancestors: Rufus, a white slave owner who she first encounters as a young man, and Alice Greenwood, a free black woman. Each journey back in time becomes longer and more dangerous for Dana as she now has to navigate and survive a world shaped by slavery.

“Slavery is a long slow process of dulling.”

Octavia Butler, who died in 2006, was an acclaimed science-fiction writer whose works often featured women of color as the protagonist and touched on themes of race, class, and gender and being an outsider; something that Butler felt in her everyday life. “I’m black, I’m solitary, I’ve always been an outsider.” Kindred, a novel that is part-science fiction and part-slave narrative, doesn’t quite fit in, but that is its greatest strength. When I first read Kindred a few years ago, I was beginning graduate school where I was the only person of color in my cohort. My feelings of isolation and being an outsider were at an all-time high. Like Dana, I had to learn to navigate the world of academia, which while not necessarily unwelcoming, was unchartered territory. Like Dana, I surveyed my landscape and made adjustments as I went along, eager to reach the finish line with my sanity intact.

Upon finishing, I shared the book with my mother, who in turn shared it with her mother. My mother and my grandmother are the last people you would catch reading a science-fiction novel; however this is a story of survival and courage that can resonate across generations. My grandmother from rural Virginia worked as a housekeeper in the homes of middle-class white families in the early 20th century; my mother raised two children as a single parent. Kindred is a powerful story that is accessible for all readers as it is a human story and as the title suggests, we are all kin.