Most of us read fiction as entertainment, a diversion to while away the time and not think about the everyday pressures of life. Sure, fiction can and often does so much more, but the principle reason we reach for a fictional story is escape. Every so often, a story will cross our path that stands out from the rest by reminding us about the power of fiction. It sets itself apart by transcending the page and bringing some sense of importance to life. Octavia E. Butler's 1979 novel Kindred is one such book, and that characteristic remains in the recent graphic novel adaptation of Butler's masterpiece Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy and illustrated by John Jennings.
Kindred is the story of Dana, a young black writer who lives in California in the 1970s with her white husband Kevin. Through some inexplicable force, Dana is drawn back in time to a Maryland plantation before the Civil War. There, slavery is not only legal, it's a thriving business and a way of life. What draws Dana back is the plight of Rufus Weylin, the young son of a plantation owner and one of Dana's own ancestors. When Rufus' life is in danger, Dana is drawn back to the past to help him. Subsequently, when Dana's life is in danger, she is drawn back to her own time. Dana is pulled back to the past repeatedly, each of her stays getting longer, increasingly difficult and increasingly violent. Even when Kevin is dragged back in time along with Dana, posing as her owner, there is little he can do to help.
Make no mistake – although time travel is involved, this is not a novel about time travel. (There are plenty of those to keep you busy.) In Kindred, time travel is merely used as a mechanism to put Dana, a modern day free woman, in a setting where her freedom is no longer a given and her life is constantly in danger. Although her travels back to the past happen relatively close together from Dana's point of view, they happen months or years apart from Rufus' point of view, allowing Dana to see how Rufus is maturing.
Any hand-waving around the time travel is irrelevant, though. This is a novel about the trials and impact of race relations, in both the past and present. Dana and her strange relationship with her ancestor Rufus are at the center of that depiction. Dana saves Rufus repeatedly, not just because his death might undermine her own existence, but because it's what any decent human being would do. Rufus, however, is anything but decent. As the son of a slave owner brought up in the age of slavery, he is a man who is destined to be part of the problem. Nevertheless, Dana tries to instill in him a more modern and enlightened view of how humans should treat one another. Sometimes it has an effect, more often it doesn't – even though Rufus has affection (as twisted as his conception of it is) for Alice, one of the black women on his plantation. The feeling is understandably not mutual. Society deems interracial couplings forbidden, so Rufus decides to get what he wants through violence, which somehow is shockingly acceptable in this era.
The setup is harrowing, to be sure, but what's truly unsettling for the reader is the remembering that, although this is a fictional story, there are elements of truth that pervade it. The horrors that take place in this story are snapshots of real life history. It's disturbing in the way black people in the antebellum South were treated and spoken to, rarely considered to be human, much less as equals. It's in the casual nature of violence that occurs, how people didn't even question it. It's for these reasons that Kindred is rightfully viewed as a powerful and important work of literature.
The 240-page graphic novel adaptation makes Butler's story all the more accessible. Duffy's adaptation perfectly captures the horrific situations forced on the lives of black people in the pre-Civil War South and conveys the emotional impact of Butler's work. Jennings' illustrations add to the atmosphere; instead of pristinely drawn images, the images have a fitting "rough sketch" quality to them that emphasizes the hardships of life in those times.
Taken together, the graphic novel adaptation of Kindred is not to be missed as a solid piece of entertainment. But if someone were to ask me why they should read Kindred, I'd tell them it's because Kindred deftly portrays a part of American history that we don't dare forget.