Octavia E. Butler
2004 (Anniversary edition)
There’s so much going on in this book that’s is difficult to know where to begin.
This is a true work of speculative fiction, in that the big question raised is, What if a modern black woman were continually called back through time to the antebellum South? That’s what begins to happen to Dana, an African-American woman and aspiring writer. While unpacking in their new home with her husband, Kevin, she’s suddenly transported hundreds of years into the past, just in time to save the life of a young white boy who she finds drowning. It is her first encounter with Rufus Weylin, but it won’t be her last.
After rescuing him, Dana is returned to her own time, mere seconds after having left. Kevin is shocked and confused, but between the two of them, they finally accept that what they saw and experienced really happened, just in time for it to happen again.
This time, she finds herself inside a house with a slightly older Rufus, who’s just set his drapes on fire. She throws them out the window, and begins to question this strange child she keeps saving. It’s slowly revealed that Rufus is none other than her several times removed ancestor. He will father her great-grandmother on one of the slave women owned by his family on their Southern plantation.
Dana will be called back many times over the course of Rufus’ accident prone life, saving him again and again to ensure that her ancestor is born. She does this while being treated like a common slave woman, first by Rufus’ parents, than by Rufus himself as he grows older and begins to take over the duties of the plantation owner.
At first, Dana tries to keep mental distance between herself and the people of the past, but as she is forced back again and again, she begins to lose her sense of self and sense of place in time. She is brutalized many times, either physically by whippings or beatings, or mentally as the fellow slaves she comes to love are sold away from the plantation or outright killed. These acts are often carried out by Rufus, the man she is forced to save, and she is constantly torn over whether to keep saving him.
As a white woman, I can never understand what it must have been like for Dana to experience the effects of slavery in the South. Even if I were transported through time by some mysterious means, I would never be subjected to what she was, merely for the color of her skin. Even as the characters in the story begin to realize the strange connection between Rufus and Dana, she is still treated as less than human.
The women in this book are really the ones who suffer the most. Their men and children are sold away from them, while they are forced to accept white masters into their beds in order to survive. Dana at first can not understand them, but over time, as she is thrown into the past over and over, she begins to sympathize with them. She even tries to help some escape. She is torn between her black ancestors and her white. Without Rufus, her family wouldn’t exist, but as he turns from innocent boy to violent and controlling man, she is constantly pushed to her limits of endurance.
This book does such an amazing job of bringing the atrocities of the South to reality. They are thrust upon a woman who expects so much more from life, growing up in the twentieth century. Things of course aren’t perfect for Dana, but she is from a time were African-Americans are at least more equal with whites than the slave and master relationship, and where she has the right and ability to marry her husband Kevin, a white man.
The things she is forced to do or accept, because of Rufus, really begin to weigh on her. She spends months or even years trapped in his time, but mere days or even hours pass in the present. The story is a constant question of how far you’ll go for your family, for yourself, and for your dignity. Can a black woman from our time be worn down enough to finally accept her life as a slave? Is the price she must pay too high?
Butler referred to this as “grim fantasy” and there are parts that are very dark. Dana is often hurt and scared, and the things she experiences are usually out of her control. She can’t decide when to arrive in the past, and she often can’t choose to go home again. The feelings evoked are those of hopelessness and loss, which I believe are very true to the subject matter Butler writes about. There was nothing pretty or idyllic about slavery or the life of a black women in the ante bellum South. I think it’s important to read books like these, though, to help us understand those experiences, and I’d highly recommend this book to anyone, regardless of skin color.
Bonnie Norman. I'm an English Major, a feminist, and a book lover. Sometimes a writer, too. I'm committed to being a voice for diversification and inclusion in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre, as well as all books and the world at large. Check out Bonnie at A Working Title.