Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Fiction Review: The Kitchen House

I recently read The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom for one of my book clubs. I started listening to it on audio and finished reading the paper book, and I thoroughly enjoyed both formats. This engaging novel presents a wide variety of characters in a part of history that I knew little about.

Lavinia is a 6-year old girl who has just arrived in the United States in 1791, seriously ill and with no memory of who she is. Her parents brought her and her brother from Ireland, hoping to make a better life for all of them, but both her mother and father died during the journey. Captain James Pyke, who paid for their voyage and planned to employ her parents as indentured servants on his Virginia plantation, decides that Lavinia will have to pay off her parents’ debt (her brother, who is older and has more value, is sold). When they arrive on the plantation, the Captain sends Lavinia to the kitchen house, to work with the slaves.

So, pale-faced, red-haired Lavinia is brought up by the extended family of slaves who work on the plantation. She grows close to them and comes to think of them as her real family. She works in the kitchen house and also in the “big house,” where she gets to know Miss Martha, the mistress of the house, and Sally and Marshall, the two children who live there. Lavinia is often reminded of her place as a servant, but when she hits her mid-teens, she is suddenly introduced to white society and expected to treat her family as her slaves. This is all very confusing to Lavinia, as she tries to figure out what her place is in the world.

This novel is bursting with a wide variety of characters, both white and black, and a whole lot of tragedy, as Lavinia comes of age torn between two very different worlds. Before reading this book, I knew very little about the role of indentured servants in our history; their status was really no different than that of slaves, except that their servitude had a finite term. The narrative shifts between Lavinia’s perspective and that of Belle, the slave who runs the kitchen house and is the illegitimate daughter of the Captain. The audio book was very well done, with two different readers for the two narrators.

Although everyone in my book group enjoyed the book and was glad to have read it, there were a few minor complaints. Some felt there were just too many bad things that happened in the story, but I thought that was fairly realistic, not only for the times but also for real life – some lives really are filled with tragedy. A few people thought the novel relied too much on stereotypes, which is probably true: most of the black slaves were good people at heart, and many of the white men were horrible and mistreated the slaves (though there were exceptions). All in all, I was captivated by the story and pulled right into its world. I found the historical backdrop fascinating, but I was also drawn into the fictional world of these characters and came to care about them (except the ones I hated!).

384 pages, Touchstone (audio by Blackstone Audio Books)

You can listen to a sample of the audio book at this link.


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