Burned Books, from the Ashes Comes Shackles


Burned Books, from the Ashes Comes Shackles in Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred”

“The Fight”, in Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, had many little plots and twists, but the thing or things that kept sending up flags was the written word and how it was controlled and used for leverage in the story. First there was the book about slavery that Dana brought back-in-time with her, with dates and routes escaping slaves used, and the map of Maryland it contained. There was also the letter that Dana wrote to Kevin, which Rufus offered to post for her. The knowledge in that book gave Dana confidence and control, albeit small, over her life should she feel the need to escape to the free North.

Due to the seditious content of the book it was dangerous for Dana to have in her possession and should she be caught with it this would not go well for her. Rufus pointed this out to her and insisted she burn the book. When she hesitated, knowing she would be destroying what little tenuous control she had on her life, it made her think of the book burning of Nazi Germany and the fascist control of knowledge that kept the people fettered to the will of the government. Burning her book symbolized not only a loss of freedom for her but also a means of escaping the fetters of slavery.

Dana needed to let Kevin know she was back. The letter, like the book, was a way to freedom from someone, her husband, who would help her for love and without expectation. It was the only way she could contact Kevin and when Rufus threatened not to send her letter unless she burned the book, he was forcing her to give up control and place it in his own hands. Rufus was handing Dana a collar and asking for the key.

The map, torn from the book before committed to flames, was the last shred of written knowledge Dana tried to hold onto—the last scrap of comfort to give her confidence that she may have a chance if she had to leave—but Rufus demanded even that. “He threatened to keep me from my husband if I did not submit to his whim and destroy a paper that might help me get free” (155). It left her no option but to give up the means to get to Kevin and hope that Kevin would get her letter and come rescue her, and she had to entrust the letter to her blackmailer, Rufus.

I took the map from Rufus’s desk and dropped it into the fireplace. It darkened, then burst into flame.

“I can manage without it, you know,” I said quietly.

“No need for you to,” said Rufus. “You’ll be all right here. You’re home.” (156)

Rufus’ last line in that passage is a subtle hint that he had no intention of sending the letter and alerting Kevin that his wife was here so he could take here away. He had effectively made Dana his slave.