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First, read classic 'Kindred' by Octavia Butler

February 11, 2001
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

Since this is February and therefore Black History Month, publishers are sending out lots of new books written by African-Americans.

But who has time to read new books? I'm still trying to catch up with the classics and finally got around to reading one of the books I've had my eye on for years, Octavia Butler's 1979 "Kindred."

Oh, this is good.

But don't take my word for it, take Walter Mosley's who said: "It is everything the literature of science fiction can be."

And don't be turned off by the words "science fiction." As everyone should know by now, there frequently is no science is science fiction, no Martians, no spaceships, no three-eyed monsters.

Butler instead used the science fiction device of time travel to transport her 1976 heroine (Dana, a black woman from Los Angeles) to antebellum Maryland and write a novel about American history, specifically, slavery. (Butler also writes more standard science fiction tales, like "Patternmaster," but we are not concerned with those novels here.)

This is what happens: When the story opens, Dana, who is celebrating her 26th birthday by moving into a new home with her white husband, Kevin, is unpacking boxes. She is overcome by nausea and recovers from this spell to find herself on a riverbank where she saves a white child from drowning.

The child is Rufus Weylin who will grow to manhood and become a slave-owner like his father. He will have sexual relations with a slave named Alice, and produce a daughter named Hagar. Dana will be a direct descendant of Hagar. So Dana is put in this most difficult of positions: she has to become the guardian angel of a white plantation owner so that she will be born.

Dana is called from the 20th century each time that Rufus' life is in danger and her stays in the past become longer and longer even though only a short time passes in 1976.

Dana becomes a witness to the daily business of slavery on a Maryland plantation. She is transported home, to Los Angeles, after longer and longer intervals back in time and only when her life is in imminent danger.

She is tolerated but misunderstood by Rufus until he ultimately breaks the fragile contract they have arrived at by trying to rape her. Dana is finally transported home, but not without injury.

Butler's book works on several levels and because it is multidimensional it made a list of the Top 200 books for book clubs. This list was compiled by Victoria McMains of Healdsburg in "The Readers' Choice: 200 Book Club Favorites" (HarperCollins, 2000, $14). There's a lot to talk about regarding Butler's book, not just the question of slavery but also the question of entrapment.

(McMains also includes among those 200 books one of my favorites, "Into the Forest" by Jean Hegland, also of Northern California, who also wrote a thought-provoking work of science fiction.)

McMains points out one shortcoming of "Kindred." Dialogue is not Butler's strong suit but imagination and historical detail make up for sometimes stilted conversations.

I also set aside one of the new books being published by African-American authors today, promising myself that I'd read it soon.

It is a historical novel that takes place in the Deep South, France during World War I, and home again afterward, "Standing at the Scratch Line" (Villard, 2001, $14.95) by Guy Johnson. His four-sentence biography is among the most interesting I've read recently:

"After completing college in Ghana, Guy Johnson managed a bar on Spain's Costa del Sol, ran a photo-safari service from London through Morocco and Algeria, worked on oil rigs in Kuwait. He has worked in local government in Oakland for more than 20 years. He lives in Oakland with his wife and son. He is the son of author Maya Angelou."

Sounds like a winner. I'd better read this before it too becomes an unread classic sitting on my bookshelf. In the meantime, though, I'm going to thumb through "Kindred" one more time.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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