Sunday, May 2, 2010

Review: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House: A NovelFrom the Back Cover:

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 onboard 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.

I enjoyed this book for its different perspective on plantation life, that of a white indentured servant, Lavinia, who doesn't fit in with the free whites or with the enslaved servants. The story gets off to a strong and immediate start with a glimpse of a tragedy to come and the rest of the narrative leads the reader down a dark and emotional path toward that conclusion:

There was a strong smell of smoke, and new fear fueled me. Now on the familiar path, I raced ahead, unmindful of my daughter behind me trying to keep up...I forbade myself to think I was too late and focused all my strength on moving toward home.

When Lavinia first arrives at the plantation she is traumatized and frightened, but gradually comes back to life under the patient care of the kitchen house slaves. The narrative moves between Lavinia and Belle, the master's illegitimate daughter. Both girls live between the worlds of black and white. Belle's light skin and favor from the master set her apart nearly as much as Lavinia's white skin does. But each woman offers a different view of that grey area, as Belle is wise to the ways of plantation society and struggles with the need to be free of it, while Lavinia is young and unknowing and wants only to find her place in it.

Lavinia has a hard time understanding that she is different from her adoptive family. She comes to be dependent upon their acceptance and love, the solidarity and comfort she finds with them. But her family knows that eventually Lavinia will be a free woman and they hope for a better future for her, and try to prepare her for a different future.

As Lavinia grows older she is embraced by the master's family and given a chance to be educated and experience more of the world. Though she attempts to make the most of it, she misses her plantation family fiercely and still can't envision a future that does not include sharing a life with them. She ends up making a decision that she thinks will provide the perfect way to return to live with her family and better their lot in life at the same time, but ultimately ends up bringing suffering and hardship instead.

I've seen a lot of five-star reviews for this book, and I thought it was good, but two things keep me from rating it that high. One, oddly enough, is Lavinia herself. She displays courage and determination when attempting to maintain her relations with her slave family, but she can't find the same stength to take care of herself. She remains on the naive and strongheaded side throughout the story and she doesn't seem to learn from her mistakes or the mistakes of others. That and the fact that this book was a little too dark and depressing for me. No one ever seems to be able to catch a break, there's just one heartache or trauma after another and at the end I didn't feel like all that darkness had a bigger purpose. If that makes any sense.

But this book is very well written and it's hard to believe this is Ms. Grissom's first novel. In the author's note she reveals her inspiration for the story: the discovery on an old map of a place named "Negro Hill" adjacent to her farm. From that notation on a map a story began to flow of what could have happened on that hill to give it its name. I also really enjoyed the descriptiveness of the narrative, particularly that of colonial Williamsburg, (which regular readers of my blog know is one of my favorite places), and the plight of the mentally ill and the conditions of the mental hospital there, having visited last summer and toured the reproduction of that hospital. And even though the story covers a span of about 20 years, it moves at a very fast pace and I had a hard time putting it down.

Rating:  4 Stars out of 5

The American Historical Fiction Group on Goodreads recently read this book, and there is an ongoing Q&A thread there with author Kathleen Grissom. Feel free to join us and participate in the discussion!

*Though I received this book from the author, this is my unbiased review and I was not compensated in any other way for reviewing this book.


  1. I have this book to read at some point in time. I have heard lots of good things about it. Not sure when I am going to get to it though. At the moment I have just started rereading Dawn on a Distant Shore by Sara Donati.

  2. I have this book to review. I've read a lot of great reviews. I will have to get to it soon.


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