In Kindred, a young black woman is mysteriously transported to the antebellum American South, where she must adapt to a society in which the vast majority of black people are slaves and where she too confronts enslavement. In order to survive, she must acquire basic skills that, as a modern woman, she has never learned, including cooking on an open hearth, sewing, and doctoring without the benefit of modern medicines or antisepsis. She must also determine whether she has the strength of character required for survival in a world that is rough and crude, in which black people are believed to be subhuman and are kept as chattel, and where physical and psychological punishments are daily tribulations.
On an elemental level, Kindred questions whether a modern person is equal to the challenge of living in a preindustrial world and whether modernization has resulted in fundamental losses of resiliency and strength. Because Dana is a black woman, there are racial dimensions to her struggle. Through Dana, Butler explores the nature of slavery and slave-master relations, the special strengths or weaknesses of character that allow slaves to survive as chattel, and the relationships between white men and black women both in the present (1976) and in the past.
The reader is first introduced to Dana in her hospital room after she has returned, injured and mutilated both psychologically and physically, from her final voyage to the past. In a series of flashbacks, Dana describes the six different trips in which she was called, against her will, to an antebellum Maryland plantation. After her first two excursions, Dana understands the purpose, if not the method, by which she returns to the past. In order to ensure her own birth, she must protect the life of her accident-prone great-great-great-grandfather Rufus, whom she first meets as she rescues him from drowning when he is a young boy. She quickly discovers that she can return to her present only when her life appears to be threatened. With each trip to the past, several years have passed for Rufus, while only a few hours or, occasionally, days have passed in Dana’s time. Because Dana cannot safely return home at will, she must endure lengthy intervals, often months, with Rufus.
As they realize that she is about to be transported on her third trip, Kevin embraces Dana, thereby traveling with her to the past. His presence enables her to feign the role of his slave and grants her time to learn the techniques necessary for her own survival. She must prepare a place for herself against the expectation of later trips to Rufus’ future. Although it eases her way in the past, Kevin’s presence worries Dana. She fears the effects that the antebellum South will have on her tolerant and compassionate husband. In order to survive, he will have to tolerate, if not condone, life in the nineteenth century. Her fears seemingly realized, Dana’s life is again threatened, and she returns home without Kevin. He remains for five years until she is newly summoned to Rufus’ aid.