So… I have a confession to make. And I know I can trust you not to spread it around… I actually read THE KITCHEN HOUSE by Kathleen Grissom by mistake. It’s not that I wouldn’t have chosen it, in fact just the opposite, but as it stands, I read it this week by mistake. I was supposed to be reading THE KITCHEN DAUGHTER by Jael McHenry for an author interview scheduled for yesterday but I think the heat must’ve gotten to me and bam, there went my brain. Alas I’m happy to report that Jael is a wonderfully good sport and the interview has been rescheduled and I’m reading her book now. I’m also happy to report that I’m VERY glad I read THE KITCHEN HOUSE. A happy accident to be sure. Now – on with the review:
Set in the Virginia in the pre-Civil War era, THE KITCHEN HOUSE is the story of two young women whose lives are dictated by their parentage and the color of their skin.
When we first meet the red-headed, freckled Lavinia, she is just 7 years old and has been brought to live as an indentured servant on the Virginia plantation where most of the story takes place. Her family perished on the sea voyage from Ireland and as she had nowhere else to go, the ship’s captain chose to bring her home. Despite the color of her skin, she is meant to be a servant and is placed in the kitchen house with the black slaves who, in short order, become her family.
This is where Lavinia meets Belle, our second protagonist. Belle is the half black, half white daughter of the Captain and a slave woman who has died and though she was initially accepted into and living in the big house, that changed when the Captain’s mother died and he married. Belle was then “hidden” from the mistress of the house by joining the slaves in the kitchen house and she too was essentially adopted by the slave family who managed the kitchen and the big house.
Neither Belle nor Lavinia want to leave the plantation or the family they have come to love there, but both know that is what their future holds. Lavinia because she is white and her proper place is among white people and Belle because even though she is half black, her father wants a better life for her and intends to give her “free papers” and send her north.
The story is complicated by the Captain’s son who is abused by his tutor as a child and grows into a mean-spirited drunk. It is further complicated by a sadistic overseer, forbidden loves, family bonds, loyalty and the social mores of the time period.
THE KITCHEN HOUSE kept me turning pages as I found myself deeply invested in the characters, but at the same time I almost wanted to turn away as I saw them heading for tragedy.
Having just read GONE WITH THE WIND several weeks ago, I found this a really interesting juxtaposition. The air-brushed, sugar-coated treatment of the slaves in GONE WITH THE WIND doesn’t exist here. This seems to me to be a more realistic depiction of the times; some slave owners are fair-minded and treat the slaves well, while others are cruel and inhuman. Either way, the idea that no matter how these people were treated they were not free is evident in this book.
Alas, because the book is a slice of life type story, when it ends, you may find yourself wanting to know more about what became of some of the characters. Well, fear not. The author hasn’t ruled out, picking up years later with the lives of some of the children from the story.
— Dana Barrett, Managing Editor