Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
There were a few black writers in science fiction before Octavia Butler (very few and Samuel R. Delany is one of the few who come to mind) and women writers, but Butler was both and a unique force during her life; one of the earliest to let her work describe the black experience and always a writer at the social level of humanity. She was more or less mentored by Harlan Ellison, who encouraged her to attend an east coast workshop where she met Delany. Over 30 years she produced some of the most unique science fiction around and was the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur fellowship.
Kindred was one of her earliest publications and involves time travel of the Billy Pilgrim/Tralfamadore variety, random and without aid of machinery. (In fact Slaughterhouse Five was published just a few years before Kindred and one could wonder about the influence as well as being published shortly after Alex Halley’s Roots.)
Published in 1979 the book involves a black woman named Dana who is suddenly plucked from her life in 1976 California to rural Maryland in the early 1800s. There she sees a young white boy named Rufus Weyland nearly drowning. She pulls him to safety and soon after is transported back to her home.
As the story develops we learn that Rufus is an ancestor Dana did not realize she had. She knows the last name from a Bible kept by a black ancestor named Alice but did not know the first name or the person’s race.
When Dana returns only moments have passed in her world. Through a series of experiences it becomes clear that it’s Dana’s role to save Rufus from a series of near-death events, at least until he can father her ancestor. The length of time in Rufus’ time can vary from minutes to months and she seems to only be able to return when her life is threatened.
Through the book the reader sees life under slavery as well as the odd and often angry and fearful relationship slaveholders have with their “property”. At one point Dana’s white husband gets swept into a time travel event and is trapped after Dana returns.
It’s an amazingly compelling book and holds up well after almost 40 years. Many of the issues of the book still have contemporary relevance and the storytelling is almost perfectly paced. It was Butler’s best selling book and is sometimes used in classes when not being censored by some random asshat. It’s a book worth reading and rereading and is one of those small miracles that spring into the literary world to live beyond the author.