Critical Review- Kindred
Possessing the Era
When critically comparing the two texts, Possessions, by Judith Richardson and, Kindred,by Octavia Butler, it can be seen they have overlapping concepts and themes which can be compared and contrasted in numerous ways. Race, gender, justice, and the constant idea of “unresolved”, are all ideas that can be explored between these two books. This critical analysis allows for a deeper understanding of the two texts and encourages perspectives on how to connect themes when approaching different genres of a literary-historical study versus a fictional story of time travel.
When we look at Kindred, we meet an African-American woman named Dana who lives with her white husband Kevin in California. As the two travel between time zones from LA to a plantation in Maryland, they find that the color of their skin sends them on two separate journeys throughout the novel. Although Dana’s current or original state of being lies in an age, 1976, where interracial relationships are accepted, she transports into an era, 1815, in which slavery is extremely prevalent. Kevin, being white, which meant he didn’t have to fear his race being an issue for himself, both helped and hindered her situation. He had the ability to be her protector and act as her slaveowner, but had to hide their once accepted relationship. A fascinating decision by Octavia Butler when introducing the story was not mentioning the race of any of the characters in the first chapter, and then slowly alluding to them using traits and visual descriptions. We don’t see the first hint of a racial issue occurring until Dana saves a boy named Rufus from drowning when she travels back in time, “I turned, startled, and found myself looking down the barrel of the longest rifle I had ever seen. I heard a metallic click, and I froze, thinking I was going to be shot for saving the boy’s life. I was going to die” (Butler, 7-8). This allowed for the readers to build a relationship with the characters before even knowing their physical appearances. As for Possessions, race isn’t an evident factor of Richardson historical tellings, her stories of hauntings generally avoid racial or gender discrimination. But, she does touch on it a bit, when she is looking at one of Irving’s tales, “Again, we see how the presence and remains of marginal others in the region lend themselves to the production of ghosts, the obscurity of the African-American past redoubling that of the Dutch” (Richardson, 55). She addresses the past of African-Americans, but speaks in general terms of American’s afterwards leaving race out of it.
Richardson talks a lot of “historical consciousness” and how this the presence of hauntings are affiliated with social class, gender, race, and cultural past (Richardson 4). Richardson often talks about tales and stories that have a masculine base, but in Kindred, our main character is a female who is experiencing these “unresolved” happenings. Because Dana is a female in the 1800s, rape is an all-too-real concern for her. When transported into another era, there are multiple attempts made by slave owners, specifically Mr. Weylin, to rape her even though she isn’t a slave herself. Similarly, her intelligence is questioned due to her gender. She is underestimated by Mr. Weylin when he puts Kevin in charge of tutoring Rufus until he later concludes Dana would be a better instructor for Rufus to learn from. “How’d you like to be the one to do the teaching?” (Butler, 95). This was a moment when we see a small, rare, glimpse of her gender being praised by a white male in 1815.
In most stories and legends in Possessions, Judith Richardson includes has a male as a lead role, whether it be a man from The Legend of Sleepy Hallow or Van Winkle from Rip Van Winkle referenced in Richardson’s work, the focus was still on the males. With Kindred, Dana gets to play a hero in Rufus’ life and then still becomes taken advantage of by white males. “But this time you just look like a woman wearing pants.” (Butler, 17.) Rufus even defies gender using Dana’s clothing when he first saw her, women didn’t wear pants in his time. In stories in Possessions clothing was assumed to concur with whatever age the story was set in, it did not decipher ones gender. “His children, too, were as ragged and wild as if they belonged to nobody. His son Rip promised to inherit the habits, with the old clothes, of his father” (Irving). Clothing, however, did contribute the portrayal of the men in stories. Both used clothing as very defying traits for the characters.
While Possessions is full of hauntings, Kindredtakes a little more digging to bring out the same tone as a book full of hauntings. However, Octavia Butler incorporates an ample amount of uncertainty in her work. Richardson talks about marginalized identities and social injustice that is explored in both Possessionsand Kindred. When discussing The Colorful Career of a Gohst fromLeeds, a legend where a man named William Salisbury ties his servant to the tail of a horse, Richardson states, “Beyond the question raised in these omissions and empty spaces, the indictment presents more positive mysteries in the strange details of the case it delineates” (Richardson, 86). Richardson contemplates with the characters reasoning and what happened to make him tie the servant to a horse. Was she mistreated or misbehaving? Now, she is spoke of as an unresolved story with questions surrounding her identity and injustice. In Kindred, Dana being a time traveler, she could be argued that she is a ghost from the future, or a ghosts from the past. Even the ways in which Dana’s transporting happens is almost fairytale-like similar to the fairytale-like stories Richardson shares. “Again the light seemed to dim and I felt the sick dizziness. I pushed back from the table, but didn’t try to get up. I couldn’t have gotten up” (Butler 13). She enters another dimension and we never really understand how or why, but it make the readers enter the dimension with her as she goes along her journey. While in 1815,like I talked about when discussing race, Dana is marginalized and treated with injustice because of the color of her skin, which is what the woman from The Colorful Career of a Gohst fromLeeds has to suffer from as well. Additionlly, Possessionshas time lapses where characters don’t seem to age over the years like Rip Van Winkle, similar to how Dana experiences years within hours. The hauntedness may not overcome the audience like it does for the Hudson Valley, but Butler definitely plays with the minds of her readers in order to allude to the unresolved theme she wants to portray.
All the stories that take place with Richardson’s book add to the already thriving hauntings, legends, and stories that accompanying it. Butler creates a story that encompasses some of the same commentary and themes that we see within Possessions.The two readings share many commonalities, yet are vastly different, and that, is the beauty of it.
Butler, Octavia E., and Ayobami Adebayo. Kindred. Headline Book Publishing, 2018.
Gant, Elizabeth, et al. Rip Van Winkle. Abingdon Press, 1969.
Richardson, Judith Ann. Possessions: the History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley. 2001.