Prologue, The River, and The Fire: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1966

New Characters
Edana (called Dana throughout the novel): A 26-year-old African American woman, the first-person narrator of the novel.

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Kevin Franklin: The narrator’s husband, who is later revealed to be Caucasian and 15 years older than Dana.

Rufus Weylin: A red-headed boy who lives in the world that Dana disappears to, who Dana will later realize is her ancestor.

Alice: A free black who lives on the edge of the Weylin property, also Dana’s ancestor.

Summary
“I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm,” the narrator, Dana, states to open the novel’s prologue. She goes on to explain that she does not understand how her arm was lost, and that neither the doctors nor the police could explain how the injury occurred. Although the police suspected that her husband Kevin, who had brought her to the emergency room, had harmed Dana, they drop any charges against him because they have no proof and Dana insists to them that he is not responsible.

Dana is in the hospital, recovering from the surgical amputation of her crushed left arm. When she asks Kevin what he told the police, he says that he told them the truth, to which she replies that if he had really told the truth, he would be locked away in a mental asylum. Kevin says he told them simply what he saw. “I said I was in the bedroom when I heard you scream,” he says, “ I ran to the living room to see what was wrong, and I found you struggling to free your arm from what seemed to be a hole in the wall. . . .That was when I realized your arm wasn’t just stuck, but that, somehow, it had been crushed right into the wall.” Dana and Kevin cannot explain how this happened to her.

As chapter 1 opens, Dana’s narrative flashes back to when her problems first began—presumably the problems that eventually caused her to lose her left arm. The date is June 9, 1976, Dana’s 26th birthday, and Kevin and Dana are moving into their recently purchased first new house in Altadena, a suburb of Los Angeles As she is unpacking a box, Dana is suddenly overcome by an extreme sense of dizziness, and everything around her vanishes, including Kevin. Suddenly, she finds herself standing on the bank of a river, where she sees a four-year-old red-headed boy drowning and his mother frantically screaming on the bank. Dana rushes to rescue the unconscious boy, whose name is Rufus, and performs artificial respiration to revive him. However, rather than receiving thanks for saving the boy, Dana finds herself held at gunpoint by another man. Just as the feeling of fear overwhelms her, her surroundings vanish, and she finds herself back in her living room, covered in mud, and in a different corner of the room. Kevin, clearly disturbed by her disappearance and reappearance, tells Dana that she had been gone for a few seconds. Dana tells him the fantastic details of what happened to her. She has no idea where she had disappeared to, but she noticed the strange old-fashioned dress and southern accent of the mother. Dana is so frightened that she is shaking, and she is afraid that she will disappear again.

In the next chapter, Dana’s fear ends up coming true: she disappears again and finds herself in the darkness of an old-fashioned bedroom. A red-haired boy, whom she believes is Rufus, is setting the draperies on fire. Dana immediately pushes him aside and hurls the burning drapes out the open window into the night. Once again, she saves the red-haired boy’s life. Because she was sent back home after saving him the last time, Dana waits for the change to happen, but she realizes that this time she’s going to stay put.

The boy before her looks older than the Rufus of her last episode; however, when she asks his name she finds that he is the same boy as before—only a few years older. He is just as puzzled about her appearance as she is, and he says that he could see Dana before with his eyes closed, and that he and his parents, although they do not talk about her, had seen her appear and disappear when she saved him from the river years before. They had thought she was a ghost. From his description, Dana realizes that Rufus could see her in her home with Kevin. He thinks it strange that Dana, a woman, is wearing trousers. Dana realizes two facts: that she is traveling through time to the past, and that her travel is directly related to Rufus. But only when Rufus refers to Dana, an African American, as a “nigger,” and describes how his father beats “niggers and horses” with a whip, does she realize how far back in time she has traveled: she is in the antebellum South—the year 1815, to be exact. When she finds out that Rufus’ family name is Weylin, she realizes that he is in fact her ancestor, the Rufus Weylin mentioned in her family Bible. Dana asks Rufus if he knows a slave girl named Alice Greenwood. He says that Alice is not a slave, but that she is free, and she is his friend who lives near by. Dana knows that Alice will become her ancestor as well, the mother of her great great grandmother Hagar. She wonders how a freed black would come to have a child with a white slave-owner.

Because she is not going to return home as quickly as she did the last time, Dana has to figure out a way to fit in to her new surroundings. Somehow she feels that she can trust Rufus, who is a child and who is indebted to her for his life. Rufus suggests that she leave the house, and return during the day to ask for work. She decides that she might be able to ask Alice and her mother for shelter until she is ready to return to the Weylin household.

Dana ventures out into the night and walks along the tree-lined road that Rufus pointed out to her. When she hears horses coming toward her she dives into the bushes, frightened. She knows that “blacks here were assumed to be slaves unless they could prove they were free—unless they had their free papers. Paperless blacks were fair game for any white.”

The riders are a members of a white patrol, whose job is to seek out runaway slaves, and they go to the home of the Greenwoods, where they break down the door and drag a man out, accusing him of sneaking away from his master’s property without a pass. Apparently, slaves need a pass to leave their masters’ property. They tie him to a tree and beat him brutally with a horsewhip, while the woman of the house and her young daughter watch, sobbing. One of the men hits the woman and she falls unconscious. Dana is horrified but stays hidden. The white men drag the black man away behind their horses. Dana calls “Alice” to the little girl, and she turns. Dana realizes that the people experiencing such brutality are her ancestors. Dana helps Alice’s mother regain consciousness and explains to her that she is a free woman who had been kidnapped from New York and is now traveling back to her husband. Alice’s mother says the slave was her husband, and he belongs to Tom Weylin, who is Rufus’ father. He came out without a pass because he refuses to take a new wife to breed new slaves as Tom has demanded that he do.

The mother reluctantly agrees to take Dana in. Before Dana can follow Alice and her mother to the house, one of the patrollers comes back, intending to take advantage of Alice’s mother. He encounters Dana instead and attacks her. Dana fights for her life and manages to knock him unconscious. She falls unconscious as well. When she awakens, she is at home in her bed, with Kevin looking over her.

After recovering overnight, Dana explains to Kevin that while she is gone, she travels back in time to her ancestors in the antebellum South. She knows what is in store for her if she has to return, because she has studied slavery in the South and wishes she had “never read about it.” She worries that she won’t be able to survive the hardships of the era the way her ancestors, who had “strength” and “endurance,” did. Dana and Kevin come to the conclusion that she is called back in time when Rufus is in trouble, that somehow it has become her responsibility to make sure that Rufus stays alive. They also figure out that she is called back to the present when her life is in mortal danger.

Analysis
Octavia Butler’s Kindred was first published in 1979, so setting the book’s “present” in 1976 was done to make Dana and Kevin characters contemporary with the book’s readers. The issues that Kevin and Dana face in their present are the same issues that Butler’s contemporary readers would have faced, including most importantly issues of race relations in America in the 1970s—as will be evident further into the book.

The primary role of these first two chapters is to set the stage for the plot device of time travel, and to establish the setting: Los Angeles, 1976; and the antebellum South, 1815. In these first chapters, Dana and Kevin manage to partially explain Dana’s time travel: they figure out that she is called back in time to save Rufus, and that she can return only when she feels in mortal danger.

Kindred uses the science fiction vehicle of time travel as its primary plot device, but Butler makes Kindred into something more than a novel about time travel. Dana is called back to a specific point in time, the antebellum South, to the lives of specific people—her ancestors, a white slave-owner and a free black woman. By giving Dana firsthand experience of the slavery of her ancestors, Butler effectively collapses the disparity between the past and the present. Dana is clearly an educated woman. She and Kevin are unpacking stacks of boxes of books when she is first called back in time, and more details about her education come up throughout the book. She is also clearly educated enough about black slavery in the American south to be afraid enough for her life should she continue to be called back. She has read books about slavery in order to educate herself about the past of her people, and her knowledge comes in handy: for example, she knows enough to hide from a troop of white patrollers, who could easily kidnap her and force her into slavery, or worse. But being called into the past gives Dana the unique experience, as she quickly realizes, to experience the complexities of a slave society firsthand, giving her an education that she could never have gained through books.

Dana is quickly confronted by the reality of slave’s utter lack of rights when she witnesses the beating of Alice’s father and mother by the white patrollers. As a slave, Alice’s father not only does not have the right to have a family of his choosing, but he is by law allowed to be subjected to assault. Not considered a human being, he is not protected by law. And both as a black and as a woman—two classes of people without any rights during this era—Dana quickly finds herself an open target for assault and sexual abuse. There are no laws to protect her, either.

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