The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

October 20, 2011

Plot summary (from the publisher): 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.

The Kitchen House is a tragic story of page-turning suspense, exploring the meaning of family, where love and loyalty prevail.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • It was interesting to read about some of the dynamics found on a typical plantation at the turn of the 19th century. This isn’t a subject I’ve read much about, so almost everything was new to me (with the exception of slaves being treated like property/animals instead of people). It seemed that the book was well researched in this regard.
  • Belle was probably my favorite character out of all of them. She had a rather complex life, and though I didn’t necessarily agree with everything she did (especially that menage a trois involving Ben and Lucy), but her actions remained pretty consistent throughout and she was believable.
  • I liked that there wasn’t a 100 percent happy ending. I figured something bad would happen to Marshall, which would pave the way for Lavinia and Will Stephens to get married, which would have been eye-roll inducing. But that’s not exactly how it played out, so I was pleasantly surprised.
  • Mama was a very memorable character as well. I ended up liking her a lot, too.

Disliked:

  • I think the author went a bit too far in heaping all these tragedies on a single family. Sure, not everyone’s life was idyllic, but come on. We’re talking sexual abuse of a minor, rape, incest, torture, murder, spousal abuse, inbreeding, alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness all in one or two generations??? Yikes, talk about overkill.
  • I call b.s. on Marshall being able to hide his character from Lavinia prior to their marriage. He was a monster and a drunkard at 16 when he raped Belle, but then he turned into some kind of saint when he went to Williamsburg? He became so kind, caring, and compassionate that Lavinia fell for him and believed that he was worth marrying? I don’t know… it doesn’t seem that someone as violent and brutal as Marshall would have been able to hide his nature for that long. Or maybe Lavinia was just that naive (also a possibility).
  • If Lavinia cared for the slaves so much, why didn’t she tell Belle about her freedom papers much earlier? I get that she couldn’t do it when the papers were first delivered because she was just a child, but how about later? Why did she wait so long?
  • The stuff about Marshall’s mother’s mental illness was boring. Every time that character was featured (I’ve already forgotten her name), I just started skimming.
  • I don’t know why the slaves didn’t take any action against Marshall. They had no problem killing the tutor, but then they let Marshall go around having his way with the women and beating up Lavinia? It seems someone would have/should have done something about him (and Rankin for that matter).
  • I didn’t really buy Lavinia as an opium addict. That just seemed way too far out of character, despite the things Marshall was putting her through.

Rating:
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is one of those books that is a bit difficult to rate. It had a lot of problems, and yet those problems didn’t entirely prevent me from enjoying the story. It could have been much better for sure, but as it is, it wasn’t all that bad. I guess 3 stars out of 5 sounds about right.

3 Responses to “The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom”

  1. And don’t forget………….

    why on earth wouldn’t they tell Marshall & his mom that Captain (the dad/husband) was Belle’s father. They’d rather those two go on hating Belle thinking she was his mistress. Mistress is better than daughter? Slave owners having children with slave women is pretty frequent so it’s not like it would be a huge shock.

    I skipped the while Lavinia/opium section!

    Lanvinia only saw the package addressed to Belle – the captains wife “opened” it in the closed study so Lavinia not telling Belle about her Christmas package is allot less severe than if she new they were her free papers & didn’t tell her.

    That’s another thing. Why on earth wouldn’t Belle want her free papers? It’s not like she would be sent away just for having them.

    I totally agree with the crisis overkill lol. I kept waiting for someone to be ran over by a train or abducted by aliens – that’s all that was left!

  2. I just read the book and found this blog while searching for reviews, so I wanted to correct a few things:

    1) Lavinia does tell Belle about the emancipation papers fairly soon. On page 119, Lavinia witnesses Miss Martha open the Christmas package and sees the envelope addressed to Belle. Miss Martha takes it and denies it’s for Belle when Lavinia asks. Lavinia sees her hide it in a drawer in the study. Lavinia is still a child and knows nothing about the back and forth regarding the papers, so she promptly forgets about it in all the holiday excitement.

    2.) Several months later, in the spring, Lavinia overhears Belle and Mama Mae talking about how the captain sent Belle’s papers at Christmas (p.129). At that point, Lavinia puts two and two together and tells them about the envelope addressed to Belle. She shows them the drawer Martha hid the envelope in, but it’s not there. Mama Mae and Belle search the entire house, but the envelope is gone. (Presumably Martha burned it).

    3.) Regarding the isolation of the plantation, that’s also addressed when Lavinia becomes close to Miss Martha. Miss Martha, a city girl, says she didn’t expect the plantation to be so far out in the country and was sick about it when they got married, but the captain promised it was only temporary until he sold his ships. He, of course, didn’t do that until it was too late. Lavinia asks Miss Martha why she doesn’t have friends, and Martha says the nearest plantation is run by a bachelor. She adds that, as a woman, she needs a white male chaperone to travel, and can’t do it herself or with one of the slaves. The only white male available when the captain is gone is Rankin, the overseer, who she hates, so travel is out. Lavinia also asks about church and Martha says that the nearest church is the wrong denomination (Presbyterian). Later though, when Will becomes overseer, he gives everyone Sunday off and starts taking some of the slaves to a rural church an hour away.

    4). As to why the no one told the white family Belle was the captain’s daughter, why would they? It wasn’t Belle’s place, and I think the captain was oblivious to how his behavior was seen. He was also gone most of the time. This is a world where white men don’t need to explain themselves. It also wouldn’t solve the problem of Martha and Marshall being jealous of her, in fact only increase it.

    That said, I do agree that Belle frustrated me. I understand she didn’t want to leave her family, but at the point when everything was dangerous to her and her love (Ben) married another woman and would be killed for going near her, she still dragged her feet about getting her papers and leaving.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to reply! I will have to pull the book out and double-check these points again. It’s been so long since I’ve read this that I’ve nearly forgotten everything already 🙁

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