Book: The Kitchen House
Author: Kathleen Grissom.
The first confession I must make, before beginning this review, is that ‘The Kitchen House’ was not a book I would have ever chosen for myself. Whilst staying in my aunt’s house, my aunt passed on this book to me, as she is quite the avid reader herself. Upon receiving it, I immediately had doubts. It is after all a book based around the topic of slavery in America. Not a subject I was that familiar with and usually would avoid due to the heartbreaking nature of it. However having nothing else to read at that moment in time, I decided to take on the challenge. This book came recommended to my aunt also, so with a book valued in such high esteem, how could I not read it. My second confession to you all, is that I didn’t really quite know what to think of this book, once I had read it. On one hand it is so rich in history and the whole issue of slavery, as it was quite new to me, was quite educating and interesting if not disturbing on so many levels. The characters were captivating and in truth the story was different to anything I have read before, so I should have loved it. However and that is a big however, having completed the book I do not really understand why so many people recommended it. Let me begin my review to explain my thinking.
The novel is set in the Plantation-dominated south and the events take place within the late 1700s and early 1800s. The story itself is based around a tobacco plantation, called Tall Oaks, in Virginia. Almost immediately, the reader is made witness to the harshness of conditions for slaves on these plantations. It is important to note that this is not a happy novel, in fact devastation and tragedy are major themes that occur almost every few pages. The story is told in two point of views, that of a little Irish girl called Lavinia, who has no memory of the events leading to her arrival by ship to America. The captain, not knowing what to do with her, decides to bring her back to his home. Lavinia arrives, shell shocked and mute, terrified of everything around her. She is made an indentured slave and is left to be raised by the family of slaves who run the kitchen house on the estate. However being of white skin means that she is always in some kind of limbo, not truly belonging anywhere. The second narrative is from a slave of mixed race called Belle, who takes the role of surrogate mother to little Lavinia. Belle herself has many dark secrets she keeps under wraps (I cannot really explain, as it is a major plot spoiler).
As Lavinia grows up, her struggle to belong becomes more and more apparent. She cannot understand that while she can play with the children of the wealthy family, she is not one of them, as she is a slave. She also struggles to come to terms with how they treat her adopted family of black slaves. Lavinia constantly struggles with who she should remain loyal too. She desperately wants her kitchen family to love her, like they love their own children, but skin colour sets her apart. So while they love her dearly, she will never truly be one of them and they constantly keep her shielded from the horrific events that occur when in truth, Lavinia needs to witness these horrible events. I feel like there are ‘Mansfield Park’ (Jane Austen) moments to this story. Like in ‘Mansfield Park’, Lavinia is characterised like Fanny Price, insofar that she is the outsider to the wealthy family, whose own children are complete ninnies and like Franny, Lavinia ends up taking care of the ailing mother and family and being the child that the parents wished they had.
In terms of plot development, drama is key to this story, and not necessarily in a good way. There are many antagonists in this story that provide the major drama. There is the overseer of the slaves, who is cruel and abusive in his treatment of them. There is also the heir to the plantation, who transitions from a boy who desperately wants to please his father, to a psychotic adult who is intent to harm anything that comes in his way. This book is filled with melodramatic moments. I literally believe the author threw anything dramatic she could possibly think of, into the mix. The reader will witness rape, alcoholism, drug addiction, affairs, disease, escapes, mistreatment of slaves, violence, deception, dishonesty and plenty of mystery. I would like to therefore note, that if you are not a fan of overly dramatic novels that this story is not the one for you. I have heard others complain about the overuse of violence and tragedy in the novel. Nonetheless although I found moments such as these a tad bit over the top, I remained determined to finish the novel and I am glad I did.
The story, as previously mentioned, has so much potential. The historical element of slavery is fascinating. I have observed movies relating to slavery before, but this novel goes into so much more detail. The reader will witness the culture of the slaves, through every aspect of the story, such as wedding ceremonies, song singing and religion. Family is a major theme in this novel also. The slaves all band together in unity to protect their own, and Lavinia, having no family herself, desperately wants to be part of this. We also see the comparison between family life with the slaves and that of life in the big house. It is evident which one is more loving.
In terms of characters, there are a lot of characters in the story to follow, and one will often find themselves having to flick back through the book in order to work out who is who again. However the main cast of characters are the backbone to this novel and the author really evokes emotions from sympathy to outrage when tragedy befalls these characters. My favourite character is that of Mama Mae, she is the grandmother everyone would want and her wisdom, wit and passion to protect her own, provide mettle to this otherwise overly dramatic story.
I do not agree that this book should be avoided, as it is a good read, despite its dramatic nature. Like I mentioned previously if you are interested in historical fiction, in particular pertaining to slavery, then I would promote this book to you without hesitation. Fans of ‘The Help’ would probably like this story. However I do advise approaching this, knowing how overly sensational and theatrical it can be. The author is quite a good story teller, and by using two narratives, that of Lavinia and Belle, we see the story from two perspectives, that of a white person and that of a slave. The author’s wording is quite poetic at times. It is as if she is an artist and the story is her easel and we are made witness to the most vivid description of events and characters. Therefore I do believe Ms Grissom has quite a talent as an author in that regard and would recommend you read the book to behold this wonderful story telling method she uses.
Overall, while this is not the best book I’ve ever read, it is one of note. Some will hate it and some will adore it and I think that speaks volumes of a novel, that it can elicit these major responses in readers and is a mark to Kathleen Grissom’s talent as an author. If you are an avid fan of historical fiction concerning the south and slavery, then this is not a novel to be missed. I did love reading it, but only once I had accepted that it was slightly unrealistic in regards to its theatricality. It is very realistic however, in terms of the daily lives of slaves, and how truly terrifying life was like under the command of psychotic and masochistic overseers. It also highlights how complicated it was for the plantation owners to involve themselves in the politics, in order to help the slaves.
Please give the novel a go. It will not be for all of you, but for the select few who do read it, I look forward to discussing the issues in the novel with you.
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The Busiest Bee 🙂