Lucy's Reviews > The Kitchen House

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
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Apr 03, 2012

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Read in March, 2012

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is what I think fits under the definition of a saga. Its timeframe spans decades and although the story unfolds with two alternating first person narratives, Lavinia and Belle, there are many more characters in whom the author invests and in whom the readers come to care about. Set in post-Revolutionary War colonial Virginia, Lavinia, a young, white, Irish indentured servant, is brought to work on a tobacco plantation's kitchen house among the house slaves. Lavinia has been orphaned and takes comfort in clinging to Belle, a mixed race slave who also happens to be the biological daughter of the owner of the plantation, Captain Pike, and whose light skin looks the most like hers. As the story progresses and Lavinia matures into a young woman, her role on the plantation changes and her loyalty to the only family she can remember as well as her belief that these slaves are her equals is pushed to dangerous limits.

It is a compelling read, especially the first half when Lavinia is young and bonding with her adopted family. I’ll be the first to admit that the conflict, the history and the limitations of both the slaves and women in defending themselves and standing up against tyranny had me on edge and rooting for what my twenty-first century sensibilities know are worthy causes. In spite of my interest and enthusiasm to know what happened next, this novel suffers from several flaws.

First, I absolutely loathed all of the misunderstanding. Things not spoken, things misinterpreted, things covered up all contribute to much grossly unfair consequences. I believe a good story can be built upon the foundation of what happens from the consquences of a misunderstanding, for instance, Ian McEwan’s Atonement. However, the author’s repeated use of her characters hearing partial conversations or the assumptions made about unexplained relationships was more along the lines of what the old sitcom, Three’s Company, did in many of its episodes except tragedy, rather than comedy, being the end result. One misunderstanding I could have handled. For example, Marshall, the eldest son of Captain Pike, hates Belle because he believes his father spends time with her and gives her gifts from his travels because she is his mistress. He does not know that Belle is, in fact, his half sister. The Captain’s wife, Mary, also believes this and an ugly need for vengeance takes hold of Marshall that fuels his many transgressions.

That brings me to Marshall, my second grievance. Marshall had a bad childhood. Even with the privilege of being white and wealthy, we are allowed to witness his confusion and sorrow as he is neglected by both of his parents, abused by his tutor and saved several times by the very slaves he eventually persecutes. I think the author was trying to make him a rounded character by making us privy to his difficulties but to them make him so uniformly evil in the end felt like a mischaracterization. I wanted him to want redemption. I wanted him to find it. That was not his role to play.

Likewise, Lavinia morphs into several unmatched characters throughout the book. From a scared mute to a confident, educated and compassionate girl who later becomes an eager to please teenager and eventually a weak and terrified drug addicted adult. I’m not saying that couldn’t be someone’s life story, it was just a lot of changes to a character within one book. Plus, the narration was usually told with a hindsight perspective so I did not understand why she always seemed so different. Shouldn’t the use of perspective give some continuity to her voice?

I loved Mama May, George, Ben, Fanny and Beatie (not sure about the spelling of those names because I listened to rather than read this book) but...I was supposed to. These are the stereotypical “good” slaves. Of course, slaves were quite capable of being good and patient and kind and thoughtful because those qualities are human and, even though they bore the weight of the injustice of being owned and mistreated, they were and always have been human and likely to be likable. I wished we could have been trusted to know their flaws as well. Sure, we saw some fear and sadness when things got really bad but no other weakness was allowed. It frustrated me because I still would have rooted for them even had one of them been depicted as lazy or shallow or unkind or selfish. It was as if Grissom devoted the book to show us how human slaves were without letting them be human.

Finally, I loved and hated all of the romantic and sexual drama. The narration often hurried up to the point of the story where people were falling in love, in love, in lust or jealous about others falling in love, in lust or being in love. In short, I think this is historical fiction for women. Even with the messiness of slavery and farm work, I can’t see a man really liking this book. I could be wrong. Maybe there are men who are drawn into the workings of a kitchen house and all the fuss between men and women but I suspect all of the childbearing, nursing, and repeated rape and attempted rape might make them squirm. Because I am a woman, I found it all fascinating and horrible.

Even with the many things that irritated me, I still appreciate the scope of the book. It examines the nature of freedom and the various things that enslave us: disease, addiction, fear...even perverted forms of love. It highlights the wonders of kindness and generosity which stood in stunning contrast to the wickedness and corruption. In addition, if it makes anyone more aware of the stain of slavery in American history, then it gets points for that.
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Marie I just finished this book. You wrote an excellent review and summed up my thoughts perfectly.

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