Kindred : Summary: Chapter 1-2
Chapter One, “The River,” pp.12-17
On June 9, 1976, Dana’s twenty-sixth birthday, she suddenly vanishes. She and Kevin are unpacking after moving into a house in Altadena, California. While shelving books, Dana becomes dizzy and nauseated. Just as Kevin reaches to help her, she disappears before his eyes.
Dana suddenly finds herself on her knees next to a river in a countryside that she does not recognize. A red-haired woman in a long, old-fashioned dress is screaming because her child, a red-haired boy about four years old, is drowning. Dana instinctively dives in and pulls the child to shore. As she is performing artificial respiration, the woman beats at Dana’s back and cries that Dana has killed the child. Dana shrugs her off and continues rescue breathing until the child begins to cough and cry. The woman hugs her child, whom she calls “Rufus.” Suddenly, a man appears and aims a strange, long rifle at Dana’s head. She is sure he means to shoot her.
Just then, the dizziness and nausea return, and Dana is again back in her living room. Kevin is staring at the spot where she vanished, and he is bewildered to find her across the room, wet, muddy, and shaking. She tells him what happened to her, and he suggests that perhaps she was hallucinating—except for the tiny fact that he saw her vanish then reappear in a different part of their living room.
Dana is afraid it will happen again. She does not feel safe. Kevin, who continues to doubt that what happened to her was real, tells her to simply put it behind her.
Throughout the novel, the narrator is looking back, recalling what happened to her from the time she first vanished. Because the narrator is looking back, readers can assume that she survives her time travel and lives to tell about it. The first chapter sets up questions that the narrator will answer as readers continue: What causes the time travel? Where is she being sent each time? How will she survive the danger of the place to which she is sent? For what purpose is she being sent back in time?
Chapter Two, “The Fire,” pp. 18-51
Part 1, pp. 18-19
Dana showers, while Kevin orders take-out food. Just as Dana sits down to eat, however, the dizziness and nausea sweep over her again, and the kitchen disappears from her view.
Part 2, pp. 19-33
This time Dana finds herself in an old-fashioned bedroom at night. Rufus is there, only he is a few years older now, and he is holding a flaming stick, with which he has just set fire to his curtains. Dana rips the curtains down and throws them out the open window. She has saved his life again, and she waits to go back home. But nothing happens.
Dana talks to Rufus and discovers that the year is 1815. From Rufus’s accent and his use of words like “nigger” and “master,” Dana begins to understand that she is in the Old South, in Maryland, on the Weylin Plantation. Rufus is the son of Tom Weylin, the man who held a gun to Dana’s head before. Rufus shows her scars from where his father beat him with a whip in the past. He was recently beaten for wanting a horse that his father sold to another man. In revenge for the beating, Rufus hoped to set fire to the house.
Slowly, Dana begins to piece some information together. She recalls that Rufus Weylin was “my several times great grandfather, but still vaguely alive in the memory of my family because his daughter had bought a large Bible . . . and begun keeping family records in it. My uncle still had it.” She asks him if he knows Alice Greenwood, a free black girl, and Rufus does. “Alice,” Dana recalls, was the name of Rufus’ wife in the Bible records. Dana wonders how in the world Rufus, heir to a plantation, will come to marry a black girl. But she sees now that her link to Rufus has something to do with their kinship. “After all,” Dana reasons, “what would have happened to me, to my mother’s family, if I hadn’t saved him?”
Rufus also tells Dana that he saw her before she appeared in his room. He saw her with Kevin, sitting in her kitchen. Dana does not want to worry about how Rufus can see her in the future. She needs to get out of the Weylin house before Tom Weylin wakes up and finds her there. “It was clear that whatever power had used me to protect Rufus had not provided for my own protection,” Dana realizes.
Rufus gives Dana directions to the cabin of Alice and her mother. Being a black woman walking alone at night—in the pre-Civil War South—frightens Dana “more than the possibility of street violence ever had at home.” She has nothing to prove that she herself is not a slave.
The pattern of the novel is now established. Each time Rufus Weylin is in mortal danger, Dana is transported back in time to save him. Their bond is their kinship, although an unknown power is causing Dana to time travel. Dana’s lack of control of her time travel makes her, in a way, a slave to a higher will. As a black woman in the twentieth century, she is mostly removed from racial violence, and she is protected by certain rights. But she is stripped of these protections in Rufus’s time, and thus she is put in a slave’s position. She instinctively senses her danger.
The year from which Dana comes, 1976, is significant because it is the year the United States centennial was celebrated. It is a year that stands for freedom and progress and the triumph of democratic ideals. Ironically, Dana finds all of these ideals reversed in Rufus’s time, at least for a black woman.
Part 3, pp. 33-37
As she nears the cabin, Dana must hide from men approaching the cabin on horses. She watches in horror as the men drag a black man from the cabin, beat him, and drag him away behind a horse because he “has no pass.” The men rip a blanket off a woman, who is naked underneath. They ignore the woman’s little girl, Alice. After the men leave, Dana appears before Alice.
Part 4, pp. 37-43
Alice and Dana help Alice’s mother into the cabin. Alice’s mother assumes Dana is a runaway slave and agrees to hide her until morning. Dana finds out that the black man was the woman’s husband, but he is also one of Tom Weylin’s slaves and has been forbidden to visit his wife, a free woman.
Alice’s mother asks Dana to retrieve the blanket that still lies on the ground outside. When Dana does so, however, she is jumped by one of the horsemen, who has come back to rape Alice’s mother. He beats Dana, who cannot make herself fight back because violence sickens her. Dana realizes, almost too late, that she is being stupid. Her life is at stake. When the man begins ripping her clothes off, she musters the courage to whack him on the head with a nearby limb.
Part 5, pp. 43-45
At that moment, she is transported back to her own home, her own bed, where Kevin is trying to calm her as she thrashes at him. He says she was gone two or three minutes this time. She tells him how she came to be beaten by the “patroller,” a type of precursor to the Ku Klux Klan.
The fact that Alice and her mother are free women, yet they are still harassed by patrollers, is important. Dana herself is not a slave, but in Rufus’s time that fact will not save her. She is simply a black woman now, fair game for patrollers and slave owners alike. At first, Dana’s modern sensibilities prevent her from fighting back, but she is quickly learning that her modern ideas have no place here.
Part 6, pp. 45-51
The next morning, Dana awakens to find that Kevin has tied a canvas bag to her. It contains some clothes and a switchblade. Kevin, she discovers, still does not believe she is traveling back in time, but he wants her to be safe, wherever she goes, especially against the patrollers. Kevin also has the idea of fabricating papers for Dana, based on historical documents.
Dana also packs a map of Maryland, which shows the rivers that she might follow north, if she has to escape north until she can get home. Kevin ponders what it is exactly that sends her home each time, and he remarks that every time she has felt her life was in danger, she came home. “Then . . . Rufus’s fear of death calls me to him,” Dana realizes, “and my own fear of death sends me home.”
She tells Kevin that there’s a catch, however. If she perceives her life is in danger, as with the patroller, she cannot fight back. To do so would end the danger—and she will not come home. She has to come perilously close to death in order to come home.
She tells Kevin that she needs him to come home to. And he tells her, “Just keep coming home. I need you here too.”
For some reason, this boy is drawing her back to the past. Neither Dana nor Kevin understands exactly why.
In an interview, Butler once said that her purpose in writing Kindred was to expose readers to the “reality of history,” to take history beyond books and movies. Like Dana, readers have read about slavery and the antebellum South, but those accounts, according to Butler, muffle the reality of the slave experience. Dana and Kevin automatically assume they can use their knowledge of history to keep Dana safe. Their education tells them that slaves did escape, so they believe it is possible if one is properly equipped. But their education does not tell them what it was truly like to be a slave. As Dana is already finding out, being a slave is to live in fear of one’s life.