I couldn’t put this book down. Dana Franklin, a young black woman living with her white husband Kevin in the year 1976 is repeatedly and involuntarily drawn back in time to antebellum Maryland in the early 1800’s to rescue her white ancestor, Rufus Weylin. Although only gone for a short time from 1976, she lives for months in Rufus’s world, in which she must experience slavery firsthand. On one trip, Kevin is dragged back with Dana, and sees the same world, but from the perspective of a white “master.”
Butler’s meticulous research into the period enabled her to draw a gripping and shattering portrait of the confluence of race, property, power, and gender. Black women in particular suffered from their positions on the bottom of everyone’s hierarchy; their physical weakness and their emotional vulnerability as mothers made them relatively easy prey.
Dana is finally able to break free physically from Rufus after he has fathered her ancestor. But she can never break free mentally of the time she spent as a slave. The trauma of living in abject terror, of being treated as an object, of being beaten and abused, and of seeing loved ones get beaten, sold, and even killed, will always be a part of her in ways she never anticipated.
In some respects the story is reminiscent of Harry Turtledove novels in which artifacts brought into the past from the future change the course of history; in other respects, I was reminded of Edward Jones’ “The Known World,” with its combined themes of slavery and mysticism. But Butler transcends the work of both authors in this book, in my opinion, with her ability to bring home both the moral ambiguities of slavery, and the complexities of race and gender. Is killing ever justified? If so, when? Can a person who keeps slaves still be a “good” person? Can people be expected to overcome the Weltanschauung of their time? How far should a woman go to protect her children? Her self-respect? Is fear an excuse for compliance? How much of our identities is determined by our race or ethnicity? How much should be?
The questions she raises about identity and limitations of the self stay with you long after you, regretfully, put the book down.
Published by Doubleday, 1979
[Octavia Estelle Butler (June 22, 1947 – February 24, 2006) was an American science fiction writer, one of very few African-American women in the field. She won both Hugo and Nebula awards. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.]