Without explaining what she means, the narrator, Dana, reveals that on her last trip home, she lost her arm. She says she also lost her sense of security and about a year of her life.
Kevin, Dana’s husband, found her in the living room, screaming and attempting to remove her arm from what looked like a hole in the wall. She was taken to the hospital, where doctors amputated her arm to above the elbow. The police arrested Kevin, believing him responsible for the injury to Dana’s arm. Dana told them the injury was an accident and that it was her fault. The police did not believe her, but since there were no witnesses, they had no choice but to release Kevin from jail. Dana says that she could not tell the police the whole truth because they would not have believed her. When Kevin got out of jail, he came to visit Dana. They are both confused by the inexplicable events that have occurred.
It is June 9, 1976, Dana’s twenty-sixth birthday. Dana and Kevin, who were recently married, move into their new home in the suburbs. Kevin has unpacked his office, and Dana is unpacking books. Kevin comes out of the office to talk to Dana. He tells her he has writer’s block. Dana gets dizzy. The room and Kevin disappear before her eyes, and she finds herself in a grove of trees. In a nearby river, Rufus, a young boy of about four or five, is drowning. Dana rushes into the water and drags the boy onto the riverbank, where she resuscitates him. The boy’s mother is hysterical, and she screams and strikes Dana while Dana saves Rufus. A man, apparently the boy’s father, appears and shoves a gun in Dana’s face, demanding to know what is going on.
After another dizzy spell, Dana finds herself back in her own apartment. She panics. Kevin grabs her by the shoulders and demands to know what happened. He says that Dana disappeared for just a few seconds and then reappeared in a different place in the room. As Dana tells Kevin what happened, she remembers some added details, such as the pine trees near the river and the woman’s Southern accent and strange clothes. Dana concedes to Kevin that the incident could have been a hallucination or a dream, but she is fairly certain it was real. She worries that if she returns to the scene, she will encounter the father pointing a gun at her. Kevin points out that the father owes her thanks for saving his son’s life. Dana is not so sure.
Kindred’s prologue, which takes place after the action of the novel is largely completed, sets up many of the novel’s important themes. With its description of Dana’s amputated arm, the prologue prefigures the extreme violence that will characterize the novel, preparing us for the physical suffering that pervades Dana’s adventures in the antebellum South. The prologue also presents authority figures as unjust and abusive. In an infinitely milder version of how whites in the novel treat slaves, the police treat Kevin with self-righteous and unfair suspicion. The prologue also shows us Dana’s unwillingness to tell the truth for fear she will be disbelieved and even considered insane, an unwillingness that persists throughout the novel. Finally, the sense of helplessness that Dana and Kevin feel in the hospital foreshadows their inability to control their destinies or even their physical whereabouts. The prologue is also intentionally abstruse. It makes us wonder how Dana and Kevin are related, what happened to Dana’s arm, and whether she is sane. By refusing to provide us with basic information about Dana and Kevin, the prologue creates mysteries that induce us to read on.
Unlike many fictional stories about slavery, Kindred is written in the first person from the perspective of a modern woman. Dana’s ability to time travel allows Butler to explore twentieth-century American views about slavery and to provide historical commentary on the institution and its practices, while simultaneously creating a firsthand glimpse of slavery in practice. The novel is not a history lesson, however, and its power derives from the vividness of its descriptions and the emotional involvement we feel with its characters.
A time-traveling narrator presents certain plausibility issues. Butler helps us suspend our disbelief by emphasizing how difficult it is for the characters themselves to accept Dana’s ability to time travel. Kevin and Dana react to Dana’s first trip as we, the readers, might: with extreme skepticism. If the couple had immediately accepted Dana’s leap into the past, we might have felt thrust into a fantastical novel. Because their reaction mirrors our own, however, we can see ourselves in them and connect with their experiences.
The novel’s form imitates its content. Each chapter jumps around in time, toggling between backstory and present action. This disjointedness yanks the reader between past and present, just as Dana is yanked between 1976 and the nineteenth century. The chapters increase in length as Dana’s trips to the South grow longer. This creates another jump, as the main action shifts from 1976 California to nineteenth-century Maryland, and as our focus shifts from the modern-day supporting characters to the nineteenth century characters.
As the action jumps around, Butler creates a rhythm that allows us to follow the temporal leaps with ease. Each chapter contains a single episode, with a clearly delineated beginning and end. In each chapter, Dana goes to Maryland early on and returns to California in the final paragraph. The rhythmic nature of the episodes tells us to expect Dana’s time travel to continue, as Dana herself does. By matching the form of the novel to the emotional content and the action of the story, Butler lets us experience something akin to what the main characters experience.