The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

17 Sep

The Kitchen House was a selection from my book club and each of us really enjoyed it.  The novel is narrated by two of the main characters, Lavinia and Belle.  Sharing narration duties, each from a very different perspective, they chronicle two decades of life, death, love and hatred. 

Set in Virginia, it begins in 1791 with seven-year-old Lavinia, a white girl who is orphaned while onboard a ship from Ireland.  Taken as an indentured servant, she arrives at the steps of Tall Oaks, a thriving tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves in the kitchen house.  

The kitchen house is run by Belle who is the illegitimate daughter of the plantation master, Capt. James Pyke.  The secret of Belle’s lineage is one the reader hopes will be disclosed at every turn of the page.  She lives her life “serving” her father every day hoping to receive the papers that will finally free her of the bonds of slavery but at the same time conflicted because that would mean leaving the only family she’s ever known.

As the years pass, Lavinia bonds deeply with the slaves who have become the only family she has.  She of course doesn’t understand the separation between those who live in the kitchen house or other areas of the plantation and those that live in the big house.  Her appearance matches those in the big house, but she spends much of her day living the life as a slave.  As an indentured servant, she’s given some advantages and privileges the black children on the plantation can only dream of.  Because of the color of her skin and the circumstances that brought her to the plantation, she never really fits in either place. 

Eventually, she is accepted into the world of the big house, where Capt. Pyke is gone for long periods of time aboard his ship and the mistress deals with her depression with daily doses of opium, for which she becomes addicted. Lavinia finds herself on both sides of 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.

The story is filled with colorful, interesting characters that you can’t help but root for and wish for their happy ending.  Conversely, it has its share of misguided and evil characters that play a significant role in this part of our sad and shameful history.

The Kitchen House is well-written and beautifully told.  I agree with my book club friends that the ending comes quite abruptly and we would have preferred a little more closure.  Maybe a sequel is in Ms. Grissom’s future.  Overall, it’s a very well researched novel that leaves you reflective, and full of hope.

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