by Octavia Butler (1979)
This is basically Back to the Future if Marty McFly were black and sent back to the Antebellum South, but without most of the will-he-make-it-back-to-the-present tension and with (too) much more melodrama. It works less as a story than as a vital, well-researched record of an inappropriately overlooked era in U.S. history. Also, it’s good to keep in mind that this was written about a decade before BttF, so it has originality working in its favor. All things considered it’s a valuable if not fully entertaining work by an author whose ideas usually outstrip her execution.
In this my fourth Butler novel it is becoming pretty easy to identify her various calling cards: a young, black, cerebral, female protagonist in an extraordinary situation; a highly compelling premise set in a well-constructed world; an odd lack of action and counterintuitive pacing; and poor dialogue.
Here I was actually surprised that the dialogue felt a little more organic (but for Dana calling the boy “Rufe” within five minutes — err, two pages — of knowing him, a conspicuously unnatural trope), but it got worse as it went on, featuring such gems as an uneducated, enslaved black woman performing Freudian self-analysis: “. . . I get so mad I can taste it in my mouth. And you’re the only one I can take it out on — the only one I can hurt and not be hurt back. 168” Butler was so intelligent that she was unable to convincingly portray less intelligent people in her dialogue, an understandable but still-glaring deficiency.
My only other problem, apart from the story becoming melodramatic and not having enough tension to sustain almost 300 pages, was how unbelievable it was that Dana would continue forgiving Rufus. He did some pretty messed up shit to her, and while I understand that Butler-through-Dana was trying to illustrate how easy it was for oppressed people to adopt an oppressed mentality, I was still unconvinced that a modern, liberated, educated black woman would succumb so easily. This is one of those gut feelings that can’t be proven or disproven, but it was still a distraction, at least for me personally.
So as a story I was relatively unimpressed. The character arcs for Dana, Rufus and Alice weren’t totally convincing, and the remaining characters weren’t developed enough to care for. But as a historical document I think the book is exceedingly valuable. There’s little fiction that compellingly addresses this period of history from the oppressed perspective, and dropping a couple of contemporary characters into the era was an inspired decision. It really brought to life the utter horror of slavery for blacks, not just due to physical torture but also psycho-emotional, such as breaking up families by selling off individual members.
For the historical glimpse alone I would recommend this book, perhaps not quite strongly, to just about anyone. It would also be a good intro to Butler, though Parable of the Sower remains my favorite of hers (see my review).