THE KITCHEN HOUSE
By: Kathleen Grissom
Published: February 2, 2010
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 on board a 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.
My mom gave me this book for my birthday in October and I chose it for our book club to read this last month. There is no question this is an excellent choice for a book club. There is so much to talk about! Slavery, alcoholism, parenting, family dynamics, and abuse are all topics that you will be sure to discuss. My book also had discussion questions at the end of the book.
With this book set during the late 1700’s and into the 1800’s, and in the south, there are certain expectations and rules that you have to remember. Plantations were isolated from the outside world it seemed and really were their own little country, running themselves and living off of their own produced goods. Slaves were common and their treatment was often tragically ruthless. What sets this book apart from other books of this genre is that Lavinia lives in the slave world but is white. She sees herself as one of them and doesn’t understand that there is a difference between the two worlds. So, once her life with the slaves is uprooted, her whole world is turned upside down. Lavinia was very naive as to the societal expectations and social obligations and because of that, this novel has many interesting twists.
This book is told is alternating chapters between Belle, a slave in the kitchen house, and Lavinia. The naive telling of the story from Lavinia’s perspective is compared to the harsh telling from Belle’s perspective and in this way you get the whole story. There are many characters in this story and it may be helpful to keep track of them all and their relationship to each other while you are reading. The family of slaves is large and ever-growing throughout the story.
At times, the story is difficult to read due to the atrocities that happened both to the white son and the slaves. As the story builds, you begin to feel both anger and compassion towards those committing the violence. Unfortunately, the lesson “hurting people hurt others” plays out in this story in many, many ways.
As the story comes to a close, you will be sitting on the edge of your seat, reading the words and flipping the pages just as fast as you can to find out what will become of the characters. If you are easily emotional, keep tissues close by. The writer has built an interesting twist in the story that begins in the prologue and ends in the last nail-biting chapter.
This is Kathleen Grissom’s only novel and she certainly has a talent. She is working on her next book about the true life story of Crow Mary, a Native woman who carried a Colt revolver on her studded belt and wasn’t afraid to use it! To learn more about Kathleen, visit her website at http://www.kathleengrissom.com/.