Tuesday, May 18, 2010

L is for Lavinia

I'd meant to post a review of Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House long before now. I took it as my plane reading for a trip to San Diego in mid-April, but I didn’t expect to be so glued to the pages that I'd carry the book around with me everywhere. It traveled with me on the train heading north to San Juan Capistrano, meaning that I spent the 90-minute ride on an 18th-century Virginia plantation rather than gazing out at the ocean and palm trees. I read it in the evenings and on meeting breaks and sadly turned the final page on my last day there. Unfortunately, I have difficulties composing reviews at 30,000 feet, and then I got caught up in other assignments, so this review is a bit delayed. But better late than never.

The Kitchen House is the most absorbing book I've read this year. I became completely immersed in the lives of the characters; Grissom creates a world so tangible and real that I felt like I was living right alongside them.

The novel is told from the dual first-person perspectives of Lavinia, a white indentured servant, and Belle, a mulatto slave who's the secret illegitimate daughter of Captain James Pyke, owner of a large tobacco plantation. In 1791, seven-year-old Lavinia, orphaned after her Irish parents die on the voyage across the Atlantic, is sent to live and work with the kitchen slaves on Captain Pyke's estate. They quickly absorb her into their large extended family. Over the next decade, Lavinia grows up alongside the other children of Papa George and Mama Mae: doing chores, preparing delicious Southern meals (there's one recipe in the back of the book), and acting as house servants to the Pykes at the big house.

Few major historical events penetrate the characters' daily lives; this isn’t a political drama but a social one. Despite her low status, Lavinia thinks of the kitchen house as her home, and she loves her fellow servants as her own family. She takes comfort in their presence, and their warmth and closeness permeate the novel. However, everyone’s isolation from the wider world on this large, self-contained estate serves to enforce their powerlessness. This holds true even for those with white skin. Captain Pyke’s despondent wife, Miss Martha, and her son, Marshall, react differently to the unbearable situations they're forced to confront. The way they express their frustrations warps everyone’s relationships with one another. Eventually, after her period of indenture ends, Lavinia must choose between her family and her race, and the consequences don't become fully clear until it's too late. Likewise, Belle hesitates to ask her father for her freedom, and her decision leads to further misfortunes.

Grissom's strong storytelling, full of suspense and tension, keeps the narrative flowing at a good pace. Also remarkable is how she allows readers to envision the social structure of antebellum America from both sides of the racial divide, through the eyes of one young woman caught between them. (There are gradations of status in both the white and Negro worlds, too.) Some of the twists the novel takes are truly heart-wrenching, yet I can’t imagine – given the reality of the times – that things could have happened any other way.

Also, although we know the year the novel begins (1791), we aren’t given the plantation’s name (Tall Oaks) or its location (southern Virginia) until later on. While I found the plotline unpredictable, and Lavinia’s predicament unique, the seemingly ordinary setting made me stop and think. The individual tragedies in The Kitchen House could easily have happened elsewhere, on many real-life plantations in the pre-Civil War South — but if they did, how would we ever know? What evidence would be left behind? And that could be the most disturbing thought of all.

An unusual yet gripping coming-of-age story, this eye-opening novel about racial conflict in early America and the real meaning of home and family is highly recommended.

Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House was published by Touchstone/S&S in February at $16.00, and I appreciate their sending me a copy for review. I'm including this one as my L entry for Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.


  1. I have this book at home, and I really want to read it, and this review makes me want it even more.

  2. Sounds very interesting - thank you indeed for sharing


  3. I agree, I completely totally loved this book and it is going on my tope ten of 2010 =)

  4. Enjoyed reading your review. I read this book last month, and really liked it although it is hard to read the very disturbing descriptions of slavery. I've been anxious for my daughter to read it so we can talk about it.

  5. Thanks for your comments!

    I've been turning down nearly all offers of review copies lately - because I'm overwhelmed - but then books like this come along. Without the offer, it would have likely sit on Mt TBR for a year or more, unread, which would have been a shame. I'm very glad I got the chance to read it.

  6. I want this book! Sounds like a great read. I want!

    Thanks for the great review!

  7. Thanks for the recommendation! This sounds fascinating and completely engrossing...must pick it up :)

  8. I think you would both enjoy it also - it's a great read if you're interested in early American history.