The year is 1976. Dana, as a black woman married to a white man, has a myriad of race-related issues in her life. It’s not a good time period for interracial marriages, and both family and friends (on both sides) disapprove. Her troubles get worse, however, on Dana’s 26th birthday. That day, she is sucked back in time, landing in slavery-day Maryland just in time to save a young white boy that she later realizes is a distant ancestor.
This book was fantastic! I’ve tried to read Butler before, with Parable of the Sower, and didn’t get very far. I’ve wanted to try something else by her, though, and I picked this one up back in April at a school book sale. I had no idea what it was about before I began to read it. Each time I saw a review, I skipped the summary altogether. I had no idea there was a science-fiction element, or that it was about slavery. I didn’t even realize that the book was published in 1979 until after I finished it! I thought it was from the last decade. The back of my book calls Dana “a modern black woman” and I wondered about that, given that she lived a good 35 years ago, but now I realize “modern” was meant in relation to the book’s publication date.
I loved every bit of this book. I have this thing with history, where it’s very hard for me to imagine or empathize with any historical period without having some sort of personalization of it. Most history books teach about the broad basics, and the people they mention are groups and classes and figures. There’s rarely any focus on a specific individual’s experience, and that’s what I need to really understand and empathize with the group at large. Reading about Dana’s experiences in the antebellum South really made certain aspects of slavery real to me in a way no history book would ever be able to do. It’s no wonder this book has been used in school slavery units!
The book is intense. It never lets up, only spirals deeper and deeper. Butler did a magnificent job showing the tragedy of that time period, while at the same time illustrating that the situation was not completely black and white (no pun intended). The white people weren’t all bad. The slaves and free black people were not all innocent. Of course, the white people were in the wrong, but Butler breaks down modern-day thinking until you realize that the white people aren’t just wrong – they’re ignorant. They don’t know any better with the way they’ve been raised. The black people may know their condition is wrong, but they likewise have a conditioned response to accept their position as natural or normal. Definitely unbreakable. It’s horrible. The whole culture in the South from that time is repulsive.
Dana, in the beginning, can’t understand that mentality from either race. From her modern world, she never understood why the slaves didn’t fight for their freedom, and much of the book is the slow deterioration of her self-certainty. She starts to understand what’s at stake for everyone. If the white owner dies, the slaves will be separated from their families and sold into even worse conditions, so it would be disastrous (in more ways than one) to kill him. If the slaves rebel, they will not only be whipped and beaten, but their spouses or children might be sold off. Running away means almost certain death. In these conditions, it’s amazing that anyone escaped, or even attempted escape. I know I wouldn’t have been strong enough to do it.
Dana is a little stronger than I am, but even her tolerance for what she’ll allow done to her when she’s stuck in the past saving her great-great-great-(many times removed)-grandfather’s life grows wider and wider, until almost nothing remains. She’ll suffer a myriad of humiliations and work-orders to escape physical agony. She often ends up in a position to choose the lesser of two evils and the smaller of two pains.
I can’t sing this book’s praises enough! It is absolutely brilliant and I am only scratching the surface in this review. I can’t begin to talk about everything packed into these pages. It is so good, definitely a (semi) modern classic.