What if you found yourself whisked away from your world of 1976, from your husband, to a slave plantation in early 19th-century, and the horror of slavery became real? What would it mean, to be black, to be a woman, to be a person used to having choices, to be a person trying to defend your Self, and to be pulled into in a world where those in power own your body, and would own your soul, if they could?
This is what happens to Dana, drawn through time whenever death threatens her white ancestor, Rufus. With each of his brushes with death--as a boy, and as a man--Dana is compelled to save him, so that his daughter, the child of one of the slaves on his family's plantation, can be born.
Saving Rufus from death is relatively straightforward. Spending months at a time there is not. Rufus is alternately charming and vicious, loving and hateful, not entirely blameless, but guilty as sin. Just as he holds the power of life and death over Dana, for a black woman can be killed or sold with ease, so she holds it over him, each time she is pulled back to save him. Dana tries to use this power do what she can to influence Rufus so that he breaks at least a little from the patterns of injustice that have been the norm for his family, while struggling with the brutal and hideous facts of life on a slave plantation.
One of the most powerful uses of the timeslip in fiction is to let people from the present describe the horrors of the past. Seeing the past from the framework of the present, the time travelling character is a removed observer, an anthropologist bringing back stories of the other, and the author doesn't have to worry about pesky anachronisms. Things that are horrible are seen as such by the character from the future, without any gloss of familiarity.
In a 2003 (I think) interview at Writers and Books, Butler says this herself: "It’s one thing to read about it and cringe that something horrible is happening. I sent somebody into it who is a person of now, of today, and that means I kind of take the reader along and expose them in a way that the average historic novel doesn’t intend to, can’t."
Butler takes the potential of this situation and uses it to heart-rending effect in her portrayal of early 19th-century slavery. It is a stunner of a portrayal, making the book difficult reading, and I highly recommend Kindred on this account alone.
But this is only part of the story. For me, the larger interest lay in the character of Dana, black, yet "whiter" in behaviour, speech, and education, than the slaves in Rufus' household. She is there at least partly through her own choice (she can return to her own time, anytime she wants to try to kill herself), taking punishment and pain and degradation, but never acting strongly to affect change. She is conflicted in her feelings about Rufus--wanting to save him, wanting to simply hate him.
The story asks what a person would be will to do to save themselves, provided they have an idea who that "self" might be. It asks how much a person might push against an intolerable situation, or how they might come to tolerate what was unimaginable. At the end, Dana must choose which she will do, and be forced, at last, to act.
Postscript re timetravel, science fiction, and serious subjects:
Here's more from the same interview I quoted above:
Butler: When I first wrote the book, I got a little bit of criticism for trivializing slavery. You know, writing what they thought of as a science fiction novel about it.
W&B: Do you consider yourself a science fiction writer?
Butler: I consider myself a writer. As you probably are aware, it’s unbelievably boring to have people continually trying to get you to define, oh, are you writing speculative fiction or science fiction or… You know, is it a good story? And if so, then accept it as that.
W&B: You don’t consider that just the use of time travel makes a book science fiction?
Butler: It would be science fiction if I had presented a mechanism, maybe some phony physics. But no, I didn’t do any of that—it’s a grim fantasy.