What the color is, who the daddy be, who the mama is don’t mean nothin’. We a family, carin’ for each other. Family make us strong in times of trouble. We all stick together, help each other out. That the real meanin’ of family. – from The Kitchen House, page 160 –
Lavinia is only four years old when she is brought to live on a tobacco plantation in America – an orphan who is also an indentured servant from Ireland. Too small to remember much, she immediately bonds to the black slaves who live and work in the kitchen house. Belle, a mulatto who is also the daughter of the plantation’s owner, befriends Lavinia. The Kitchen House is narrated in the voices of Belle and Lavinia in alternating chapters. Although one is white and the other is black, they are both enslaved women who must use their wits to survive. The novel takes place from 1791 through 1810 as Lavinia grows from a fearful child into a woman.
Kathleen Grissom introduces dozens of characters in her novel, including the various black slaves and their families, as well as the white plantation owner (the captain), his wife, Martha, and their children. Historically, the book looks closely at the horrors which faced slaves (starvation, illness, abuse, and sexual assaults), but balances that with the incredibly close familial and community bonds which developed in the slave quarters. Grissom also shows the interesting connections which unfolded between white, upper class citizens and their slaves, individuals who were tasked with nursing white babies and taking care of the sick, as well as working daily in the fields and “big house” at the will of their “owners.”
Historically, the novel lays out the societal mores of the times and provides compelling descriptions of the countryside, and life on a plantation during the latter part of the eighteenth century and into the early 1800s. Thematically, The Kitchen House examines the definition of family, self-actualization, enslavement and freedom, sexual molestation, rape, and family secrets.
Despite an interesting premise, I felt the novel did not deliver emotionally. Belle’s and Lavinia’s voices are well-scripted, yet I felt a remove from the characters which was hard to explain. Perhaps it was the wide span of years which the novel covers, but the character development felt shallow to me. There is violence and murder in the book – but, I often read those passages with very little feeling for the characters. I wanted to relate to these people, I wanted to empathize with their plight…and yet I felt oddly detached through much of the novel.
Grissom’s plot is fairly predictable. Family secrets create the opportunity for misunderstanding and betrayal, and relationships unfold as expected. This lack of tension in the plot made my reading of the book slow.
I read this book for a Book Club discussion, and I should mention that my lukewarm view of it was in the minority within my book group. Most readers enjoyed the narrative pacing and felt that because the story unfolds over many years, it would be difficult to have a strong connection with the characters. Although, I disagree with that viewpoint, I would not discourage other readers from giving Grissom’s novel a try. Readers who enjoy historical fiction may find this an interesting read.
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