This is a book that has been in my TBR pile for YEARS. To the point of embarrassment, even. I’ve been intrigued by this book since shelving it as a bookseller and my co-workers pointing out how much they loved it. This was the first science fiction novel written by a black woman, and that deserves some respect right there. I’m generally only mildly interested in sci-fi, so that’s probably what put me off reading this for so long. But while it gets classified as sci-fi because of the time traveling element in it, it’s much more a historical fiction slave narrative than anything else. And that right there is what makes this book stand out.
Dana and Kevin move into a new house in California. They’ve been married for four years, and are both writers. One day Dana, a black woman, gets dizzy and disappears from her home, and appears in early 19th century Maryland, and saves a little white boy from drowning. The little boy’s father thinks she’s going to hurt the boy, but before either can act, Dana disappears again and reappears back home with her husband. Thus, over a short period of time in 1976 California, but over the course of many years in early 19th century Maryland, Dana returns at different times when that little white boy, whose name is Rufus, finds himself in mortal danger of one kind or another. Why is she getting sent back? What is the purpose?
I will warn you – Butler wrote a very real depiction of slave life in this story. Some of the details are more gory than some people care to read about, but there was nothing gratuitous about it. Dana, with her 20th century upbringing, experiences the brunt of what it was to be a slave in the Old South. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, “Butler wastes no time in demonizing what was demonic.” Butler demonstrates the twisted thinking that white slaveowners held with regards to their “property.” She depicts the punishments they unleashed. She gives voice to the slaves themselves, and what they did to merely survive. It made this book difficult to read at times, but the story drew me in so much I couldn’t help but follow Dana as she struggles to figure out her purpose in being sent in time and in her own survival.
Certainly give this book a read if you’re into time travel stories or historical fiction about early 19th century America. The story and the characters will engage you and could bring up excellent discussion questions in a book group addressing the history of slavery in this country, women’s rights, racial tension, and of course the whole “what if?” factor of “what if this happened to me?” You might even finish this book and feel the urge to get back on the family history horse and see if similar skeletons lie in your closet.