I'm not really sure where to start with this book. It's in that category of “classics that everyone should read” and having finally read it, I agree. It's really, really, really good. It's a hard read at times - it takes you right into the antebellum south and the heart of slavery. It's actually set in Maryland, which is a little jarring for me - in today's political climate, Maryland isn't really considered part of “the south” - it's far more liberal than most of the south. A blue state, where those are all red. But it WAS a slave state. It is below the Mason-Dixon line, and reading the wiki, slavery was actually legal here longer than it was in the south. (Mostly because the Emancipation Proclamation only covered the Confederate States, not the slave-holding Union states of Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland. That's screwed up. You can't have slaves, but it's totally cool that the people that fought for us still keep them?)
So Kindred is set mostly in pre-Civil War Maryland, with a few scenes in modern-day California. The mystery of how Dana time-travels is never explained - but it doesn't really need to be. That's not the point of the story. The point of the story is a modern-day black woman transplanted to the antebellum south and learning to understand slavery in a very intimate manner. Dana mentions a couple of times how easy it is to forget that she has another life - that's she's a free black woman from the future - because the way they keep slaves in line doesn't give you time to think past the present. You work too hard to think of the future, and if you don't, all you can think about is the pain from your punishment for not working hard enough.
The book is a very visceral portrayal of a somewhat pampered slave's life - she's not a field hand, her masters are what passes for “kind.” Dana's fellow slaves live in fear of being sold down south to Mississippi - they know Maryland is better. As hard as some of the scenes are to read, the book explicitly says it could be harder.
The conflict Dana feels between rescuing her white, slave-owning ancestor again and again, and standing back and letting nature take its course (but dooming herself) is one of the central points of the book. It's a moral quandary that she never really answers.
Ultimately, there's no way to do this book justice in a review. I think it should be required high school reading. More than that, I think it should be required reading for white people. And if you haven't read it yet, you should. I knew on an intellectual level what slaves went through - but this book doesn't look at it from a distance. It doesn't divorce the reader from the violence. It puts the reader right there in the dirt of the yard with the whip exploding across Dana's back.
I think it took me so long to get around to this book because it IS a classic. And so many classics I was forced to read in school were boring and dry and hard to read. I'm starting to find that some are classics because they're just that good. Good and necessary and written about critically important topics. Kindred is one of them.
You can find all my reviews at Goddess in the Stacks.