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.