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Book Cover Image: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Title:  The Kitchen House

Author:  Kathleen Grissom

No. of Pages:  368

First Released:  February 2010

Synopsis (Courtesy of Joseph-Beth Booksellers): “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.”

Comments and Critique:
  Simply put, The Kitchen House is a reminder as to why I love historical fiction so much.  Done poorly, it paints a picture of a lifestyle now past.  Done well, it places you into that time period that you forget the modern world while immersed in the novel’s pages.  The Kitchen House is historical fiction done well.

Ms. Grissom has created an engaging page-turner that made me part of Virginia in the 1810s.  The images of Tall Oaks, Williamsburg, and plantation life in general is so clear that I felt as if I was watching a movie rather than reading a novel.  Not only that, but Ms. Grissom is able to elicit an extremly strong emotional response through her well-researched portrayal of plantations, slavery, and indentured servitude.  There is a sense of foreboding that builds and greatly contributes to the overall story.  Ms. Grissom’s greatest strength lies in her ability to utilize the imagination of the reader to help tackle the true difficult situations around abuse and mental health for a reader’s imagination will always be worse than what the author can portray with words.  This ability to leave much of the specifics to the reader’s imagination strenthens the overall message behind power, love, and family.

While slavery and indentured servitude are the backdrop to Lavinia’s and Belle’s stories, make no mistake that the main point of The Kitchen House is family.  What makes a family?  Is it blood only?  What are your obligations to blood relatives?  Are they greater than obligations to others you consider family?  Should they be greater?  Ms. Grissom explores the idea of family and its ties through Lavinia’s struggles to adapt to her servitude and then to her emergence into the “white” world.  It permeates all decisions made by each of the characters and presents the reader with many questions about the essence of family. 

Slavery and servitude are not easy topics, but Ms. Grissom handles both with reality and care.  She does not gloss over the more evil aspects of either one, nor does she romanticize them.  Her matter-of-fact treatment of both situations allows the reader to learn more about them while not getting bogged down into the moral complexity of either issue.  A reader is left with a sense of the differences and similarities of both, highlighting the freedoms afforded Lavinia that Belle and her family would never be able to achieve, whether it is fair or not.  It truly is an interesting glimpse into two institutions that were all too common in colonial America.

The complexity of the relationships and of human nature presented by Ms. Grissom leave the reader wanting more.  What was Marshall’s purpose with pursuing his relationship with Lavinia?  Why did he maintain a friendship with Rankin even though Rankin helped Mr. Waters accomplish his abuse?  Did Marshall ever really grow up?  Would he have been different had his father lived longer or was he doomed the minute Mr. Waters was hired?  Why did the Pyke family listen to the slaves for some things but not for others?  Were the slaves battling Stockholm Syndrome as was Marshall?  What about Lavinia?  Was she really that dense or did everyone conspire to keep her innocent far too long because of her unique position?  Could a random set of people come together today and form the same familial bond formed by the slaves out of necessity back then?  There are so many fascinating questions that could be asked and answered, and yet the fact that they are not answered does not detract from the novel.  Rather, the lingering questions only serve the purpose of forcing the reader to remember The Kitchen House long after finishing the last page. 

This truly was an outstanding novel, one I will be recommending to as many people as possible, particularly those interested in historical fiction or anyone wanting to learn more about slavery and indentures.  However, the appeal of this novel is more than its glimpse into history.  Rather, it transcends history and becomes a story about humanity and the need for love and companionship. 

Thank you so much to Kathleen Grissom for the opportunity to review her novel.  I am forever grateful for the privilege.  This book counts for the 100+ Reading Challenge and the Read ‘n Review Challenge.

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