Title: The Kitchen House
Author: Kathleen Grissom
Publisher: Kathleen Grissom
Genre: Historical Fiction
First Publication: 2010
Major Characters: Lavinia McCarten, Belle, James Pyke, Martha Pyke
Setting Place: Virginia (United States)
Theme: Social Inequality, Slavery and Unfree Labor, Gender Relations and Oppression,
Narrator: First Person from Belle and Lavinia’s Point of View
Book Summary: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family. Orphaned while onboard ship from Ireland, seven-year-old Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family, though she is set apart from them by her white skin.
Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare, and lives are put at risk.
Book Review: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
The basic plot of The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom was intriguing. The idea of a young white orphan girl being taken to live on a slave plantation and placed under the care of the slaves is a unique take on this time period.
Lavinia, born in Ireland, is an indentured servant who comes to live at Tall Oaks tobacco plantation in southern Virginia in 1791. She is placed in the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate daughter. Lavinia lives and works in the kitchen house along side the slaves on the plantation and forms a deep and loving bond with them, they become her family.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is complicated and compelling with realistic characters and complex relationships. There is a richness in detail for the setting and the period. Grissom is able to paint a vivid picture of the love of a family and the joy in the simple things in life as well as the deeply moving sorrow that affected many of the characters in the book.
“This world is not the only home. This world is for practice to get things right.”
I loved the two female protagonists, Lavinia and Belle, who narrate this story. They narrate in alternating chapters which has become a very popular technique for writers. I’m not always fond of it, I think it can often make a story feel awkward or disconnected. But I thought it was a clever technique for this story and it was well done. Grisson allows Lavinia to narrate the majority of the story with Belle’s chapters being only a few pages in length. Lavinia’s voice changes as she matures to adulthood and Belle is able to give the reader adult insight into relationships and the motivations behind other character’s actions.
Grissom does a good job of creating a realistic character in Marshall, one of the antagonists, whose behavior is often horrifying and despicable and other times tender and protective. I loved the gentle and caring male characters of Uncle Jacob, Papa George and Ben, who nicknames Lavinia ‘little bird’.
“There is always something to learn, that everybody got something to tell you.”
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is both a tender and horrifying depiction of a time when life was complicated and dangerous. I felt Lavina and Belle’s fear as they navigated the obstacles of their daily life and struggled with who to trust and how to keep their secrets.
This novel reminds me of ‘March’ by Geraldine Brooks which I would also recommend to readers. Part of that story takes place on a cotton plantation that employs freed slaves and there are similar relationships between the characters.
On a side note, if you listen to this audiobook, take the time to listen to the last few minutes of the author speaking about her motivation and passion for writing this book. It was very interesting.