SOMETHING NEW; a book to read for the first time
I have to admit, this book was hard for me to read at first. I think that might be the point, but eventually it drew me in and I finished 200+ pages in one sitting. It is an unflinching first person slave narrative that is also in the fantasy genre, a speculative fiction time travel story. A black woman from 1967, Dana, is thrown through time again and again without her consent to go back and save the son of a white slave owning plantation owner, and because the boy happens to be her distant ancestor Dana finds herself trying to make excuses for him and the time he lives in even to her detriment and dehumanization. She struggles with blending in, especially since in her case that means posing as a slave, and her predicament is not made any kinder when she learns that her only way to transport home is to believe, with her whole heart, that her life is in grave danger and that she is about to die. In that way Dana and the boy, Rufus, are tied. Dana is called to him when he is about to die, and Dana can only be freed from the hell of a Maryland plantation decades from the Civil War when she truly and completely believes that she is going to die.
Octavia Butler is one of my favorite science fiction writers and I know many people I respect consider this to be her best work. I’ve only just finished reading it, but I think I am inclined to agree. It is a time travel story I’ve not seen before – namely, a time travel story from a black author dealing with the very, very painful realities of history that anyone of color, though African Americans especially, that might make someone pause at the possibility of a trip through time. It is not a fun thing, it is not an exciting opportunity that Dana is offered benevolently, but something she has to endure in the hopes if she survives long enough that she can just go home.
Dana’s struggle with dehumanization is intense and all encompassing, having to struggle between staying silent or speaking up when she watches friends she’s made on the plantation sold or beaten or raped, struggling with the extended trip to the plantation with her white husband accidentally in tow, and most of all her struggle with continually saving Rufus while torn between thinking she can save him from being like any other white person and feeling crushing immeasurable guilt for the actions of another slave owner that she keeps saving the life of (even if she tells herself it’s only to ensure she can be born, her ancestor’s parents being Rufus and the enslaved woman Alice). Dana continually says she doesn’t have the kind of endurance of her ancestors, the slaves whose lives she’s getting a first hand encounter with now, but she is an incredibly strong, brave heroine in a world where there’s no right answers, no happy ending. Like Harlan Ellison is quoted as saying on the cover, this is a novel I think I’m going to keep coming back to. I am floored by this amazing novel, completely and utterly rocked.