Published by Simon and Schuster on October 21st 2014
Genres: Coming of Age, Fiction, Historical, Literary, Sagas
Buy on: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks
Now available in hardcover for the first time—in this gripping New York Times bestseller and book club favorite, Kathleen Grissom brings to life a thriving plantation in Virginia in the decades before the Civil War, where a dark secret threatens to expose the best and worst in everyone tied to the estate.
Orphaned during her passage from Ireland, young, white Lavinia arrives on the steps of the kitchen house and is placed, as an indentured servant, under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate slave daughter. Lavinia learns to cook, clean, and serve food, while guided by the quiet strength and love of her new family. In time, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, caring for the master’s opium-addicted wife and befriending his dangerous yet protective son. She attempts to straddle the worlds of the kitchen and big house, but her skin color will forever set her apart from Belle and the other slaves. Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds.
I haven’t been actively participating in the 2014 Historical Fiction Challenge as much as I originally planned, so I was excited when Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House came my way. This novel takes place in the 1700’s, and tells the story of two women, Lavinia and Belle, from the two women’s point of views. Lavinia is an orphaned Irish immigrant who winds up an indentured servant to a wealthy southern family. While living on the plantation, Lavinia is given to Belle, the white plantation owner’s illegitimate black daughter, to raise. As viewers glimpse what life must be like for a young white girl raised in the slave quarters, we also get to glimpse at what life is like for Belle. As a slave, but also the daughter of the plantation owner who was raised in the ‘Big House’ before her father married, Belle finds her world ripped a part when she’s relegated to being a cook. Both woman live in an in between world on the plantation. Lavinia is white and has all the opportunities her race affords her, but as a servant remains in a lower class than the family she serves. Raised by the slaves, Lavinia struggles with her identity as she searches to belong. Belle, on the other hand, grew up in luxury, only to have it ripped away. Even though she’s a slave, Belle is much loved by her father, but must keep her true identity a secret from her father’s wife and children.
The Kitchen House was a fascinating read, but was made difficult by the main characters’ likability. Both Lavinia and Belle seemed very weak, stupid, and unrealistic as characters. While it’s plausible that a young white girl living and working along slaves may come to believe she’s one of them, I found it hard to believe that Lavinia would be so blind to the many things going on around her throughout the book. As a person who’s lived with other people, I don’t quite understand how Lavinia wouldn’t figure out who the father of Belle’s baby was, or what her own husband was capable of. I also found Belle to be unbelievable as a character, which was a problem since she was the other main character in the novel.
Belle was in a unique situation. She was a slave, but she was also the daughter of the plantation owner. This was a common occurrence, but in Belle’s case her father recognized her as his child. It was only his wife and children who didn’t know Belle’s true identity, which would cause major problems later on in the novel. All of Belle’s “family” in the slave quarters would constantly tell to ask for her free papers, and Belle didn’t want to until it was too late. Belle’s excuse was she didn’t want to leave her family and home. As understandable as that may be, it’s inconceivable that someone owned as a slave wouldn’t want the opportunity to be free. Belle was light enough that she could have passed for white if she wanted to. Her father wanted to give Belle her freedom so she could live in the North and have every conceivable opportunity. As a businessman, Belle would have been able to see her father, and could have escaped the dangerous situation she was in. Instead, she wanted to live on a plantation where her step-mother believed she was her husband’s mistress, and live in constant danger of being raped by the overseer.