Note: I had initially scheduled my reading of this book for the last week of the month. But then I couldn’t stop myself. Once I picked it up, my thoughts kept returning to it, and before I knew it I was in too deep. This was a marvelous read. Instant favorite.
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Specs: Paperback, 264 pages, plus critical essay by Robert Crossley of the University of Massachusetts at Boston and reader’s discussion guide
Publishing Information: 1979 (Doubleday), Reader’s 25th Anniversary Edition 2003 by Beacon Press.
Summary: The year is 1976. Dana and her new husband Kevin have just celebrated their marriage, and Dana has just celebrated her 26th birthday. Both are writers; they met through a temp agency (jokingly called the “Slave Market”) that they used to pay the bills while they wrote their books. Kevin ended up making it big with his novel, and now it’s 2 days into living inside their new house in southern California. Oh yes, and–Dana is black, and Kevin is white.
All at once, Dana feels dizzy, then passes out and reawakens near a river where a small white boy with red hair is drowning. She quickly rushes in and pulls him out, gives him CPR, and finds someone pointing a gun at her face. All goes dizzy again, and she finds herself back at home but on the other side of the room. Kevin is frantic but says she only disappeared for a brief few seconds and is unsure about whether to believe her.
But then it happens again–and this time, Dana is pulled away for hours. She discovers the boy is named Rufus Weylin, son of a slave owner in antebellum Maryland, and feels sick when she realizes what’s happened. Rufus is her ancestor, and if she does not rescue him each time she is pulled back in time and space–she may never be born.
Dana is pulled back 6 times, each experience more terrifying and longer-lasting. She faces her own slavery and the scorn of others in her “other home” who say she’s “too white” and “uppity.” She is made an example several times by the sadistic men (and sometimes women) who don’t like her ability to read, her modern sense of self-confidence. She’s also held scornfully by certain slaves who accuse her of being a “mammy” to the Weylin family, and Dana finds that she faces an agonizing decision. Will she speak out against injustice, or do what she can to survive so that she will continue to exist? And will she ever be freed of her obligation and be allowed to return home for good?
What I Liked: Butler’s writing style is easy to follow and engaging. The glimpses into Dana’s daily life and personality are seamlessly integrated. And I’m not always a fan of Prologues and Epilogues, but this time, it more than works.
What I Disliked: Reading about the violence. Kevin’s insensitivity toward his wife’s experiences. The freaking stupid Weylin family. That I cried from being angry. As far as the book itself or how it’s written, nothing except that I’ve always been deeply uncomfortable with the n-word, which is used liberally throughout the text for historical accuracy.
What I Loved: I can’t even on this one. What wasn’t to love? But loved in a very somber, grave sort of way. It reminds me the Doctor Who episode, “Blink,” when Sally Sparrow tells her friend Kathy that she loves how sad things are. Kathy asks her, “Sad? What’s so good about sad?” Sally responds, “It’s happy, for deep people.”
What I loved in this book is not anything happy. To be frank, there’s nothing remotely happy or joyful about it. But it makes one think, and think hard, about perception vs. experience, victims vs. survivors, all these paradigms. It speaks clearly to the complexity of people and the primal simplicity of fear. For this one, I shall have to make a list of favorite things, or this post will go on into infinity.
- Dana begins as physically frail. She knows that she is not made for the back-breaking stamina of being a slave. She she adapts and pushes herself and prepares each time she goes home. In a word, she displays resilience. And in this, she discovers and we as readers are reminded that in this way, slaves are made. We all of us have done what it takes to stay physically alive. We can adapt to just about anything. Usually, this is encouraging. Here, it is heart-breaking.
- The Weylin family is shown in such a way that we cannot hate them–at least Rufus. His mother is obviously mentally unstable. His father is awful–but not nearly as “mean” as other slave owners of the day. The beatings they mete out upon the slaves aren’t anything more than mild compared to how other owners treat their “property.” And here we see it–the perspective of the abuser, the oppressor, trying to define what it means to be oppressed. And Rufus is a sympathetic character. He LOVES Dana. But as a selfish, spoiled little boy who grows into a selfish, spoiled slave owner, his love is dangerous when denied.
- At one point in the story, Kevin is pulled back as well. That time lasts 2 months. And in that time, Kevin as the white man cannot see how horrifying it is. He and Dana argue about this. He of course has an intellectual understanding and is offended by many things, but he cannot understand it the same way that Dana as a black woman understands it. In other words, his privilege shows loudly and clearly. But then he is left behind in Maryland. For 5 years. For Dana, it’s 8 days (time slippage, you see). And he then gains the experiences he needs to see just why slavery is so horrid and why the black community is still talking about it and why all communities SHOULD keep talking about it.
- The imagery. Oh man. These are the scenes that made me cry. The sound of the whip. The feel of it on her flesh. The smell of the brine. The punch landing on cheekbones. The bruising. Somehow, Butler captured in stark detail what I cannot handle knowing that people have experienced.
- Most of the narrative is spent with the other slaves, and learning their stories. This brings a richness to the story so that the focus isn’t just on “Dana’s Choice.” We can see that she has thrown her lot in with them, standing in solidarity. And it’s these portraits that are some of the most heart-breaking. A mother whose children have all been sold. A man sold away from his wife. A black woman born free caught by hunting dogs and sold to the plantation after being assaulted and her papers torn up.
Overall, like I said before, not a happy book. But an important one. And I’m teaching it next year to my 9th grade class. Books are already ordered and on the way.