Kindred – Octavia E. Butler (1976)

OctaviaEButler_KindredBilled as the first science fiction book to be written and published by an African-American female author, Kindred finds itself quite commonly on community One-Read reading lists across the country, and although written in 1976, it’s still a powerfully relevant read for the world as it is today in America.

The story revolves around the main protagonist, Dana, an African-American who is living in 1976 and working on her writing in CA living with her white boyfriend/partner. One day to her surprise, she passes out after being dizzy, and finds herself waking up by herself in 1815 Maryland on a slavery-run plantation being put into the position of saving a young white boy called Rufus from drowning in the river. It’s only after some time passes that Dana manages to work out that she is slipping through time from 1976 back to the early eighteenth century with the goal of keeping Rufus alive so that he can father her grandfather in modern days, and the only way that she will not influence her future (and her very being alive) is to fight for Rufus.

“The ease. Us, the children… I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”

Butler keeps the ethnicities of both Dana and Kevin under wraps for quite some time, so as a reader, it’s quite confusing as you read about how the African-American slaves with whom she interacts treat her. To them in their time period, she talks and acts “white”, but she looks African-American, so it’s tres confusing for everyone for quite some time. Eventually, Dana learns that her time slippage has the mission, and then as the chapters progress, the story fits together really well.

It’s interesting that when Butler published this novel in 1976, it was the two-hundredth anniversary of American independence from the Crown, and about a century after the emancipation of slavery and thus, is an obvious link with that difficult history. It’s much deeper than you realize at first, as the novel is very well written and the relationships between Dana and her fellow slaves are delicately handled. With Dana’s first-person modern POV, the novel seems epistolary in some ways, a reminder of some of the earlier first-person slave narratives except that Dana was born free and then was enslaved (similar to poor old Solomon Northup), as opposed to the more traditional narrative of being a slave and getting one’s freedom, such as was the case for Frederick Douglass and others.

However, despite the serious topic, it’s a fast read. That’s not to say that it’s an easy read — some of the scenes are harrowing in terms of how her fellow slaves are treated or how she herself is treated – but the narrative flows very smoothly and once you get the hang of the how and the why behind this time slippage, everything makes sense. Despite the fact that this is fiction, Butler sets it up so convincingly that at times, I just fell completely into the story itself that it read as though it was actually happening. (Sign of a great writer, methinks.)

Octavia Estelle Butler was an American science fiction writer, and the first African-American female sci-fi writer. Butler was awarded both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and in 1995, became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. She died in 2006.

I really loved this read and am now interested in reading more of Butler’s work.  Going to toddle off to the library soon…

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Bedknobs and Broomsticks – Mary Norton (1943)

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Browsing through the shelves, both on-line and in real life, I was searching for a quick read for the Century of Books project, and saw that the old kid classic, Bedknobs and Broomsticks by Mary Norton would fit rather nicely for 1943. So – happily snatched it up and had a pleasant little read. (The U.S. title is singular, though, for reasons unknown, but probably linked with copyright or similar.)

Any time you read a book from long ago, there are going to be differences in how you remember things, and there were a few things about this read that I had (mis-)remembered, but perhaps it’s because I only saw the movie back then….

There’s a big difference, for example, on content and what used to be thought suitable for children (and for the times) can be somewhat jarring. This narrative includes some rather questionable descriptions of cannibalistic “savages” from which one of the characters needs rescuing – it’s amazing to see what was (British culturally) acceptable at the time sometimes. These characters had “kinky hair” and “thick full lips” – the starring characters, naturellement, were white – and so I’m curious if these sort of books are still given to children to read any more in great numbers.

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(For example, my brother had a little book called “Little Black Sambo” by Helen Bannerman (1899) given to him for a b-day present at some point, and we children all adored the book. But looking back at it, regardless of the narrative itself, the illustrations are iffy at best. But them were the times.)

So, back to Bedknobs and Broomsticks….

The edition that I had combined two books, The Magic Bedknob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, both concerning three kids who move from their home to stay with an old aunt who lives in a small village in Bedfordshire. (Well, blow me over. That’s my home county!! Who would know?) The kids go outside to play and happen to see a woman flying by them on a broomstick who then crashes and they run over to make sure she is ok.

Thus begins the story of how these three city kids become enmeshed in the life of a novice witch who has sworn them to secrecy in exchange for a magic bedknob (corner decoration on the old brass beds) that can time travel. I was prepared for loads and loads of inappropriate cultural references, but the only patch (apart from the previously mentioned one) was when someone gets rather singed when he’s being burned at the stake…

But it seems to have aged rather well. I have no idea if kids today are still exposed to the film or the book, but it’s pretty good and I think the questionable references could be “teachable” moments overall. I am glad to have read this one, and was surprised to learn that actually it’s two stories inside: The Magic Bedknob (where the kids are first given the bedknob) and also Bonfires and Broomsticks (where the kids use the bedknob to time-travel back to the time of King Charles).

So not bad, not good. Just so-so. Norton was also the author of The Borrowers series of books that I adored. Perhaps I should track those down as well…