The Kitchen House
By Kathleen Grissom
Completed September 7, 2011
When we hear about the “labor force” of the antebellum South, we often hear about enslaved Africans, forced to work the land in an unimaginably oppressive life. Kathleen Grissom, in her debut novel, The Kitchen House, depicts another type of forced labor – the indentured servant – in her novel about family, slavery and plantation life.
Set in the early 1800’s, the story opens when Lavinia arrives at Tall Oaks, a plantation in Virginia, as a young girl fresh off a ship from Ireland. Lavinia is an indentured servant – left without any family – and is placed in the care of Belle, a young slave woman who works in the kitchen house. At first, Lavinia is sickly and withdrawn, but as the months progress, she becomes stronger and more dependent on her new family, led by slave Mama Mae, her husband George and their children.
The Kitchen House is Lavinia’s tale of growing up on the plantation and her struggles of being a white girl raised in a black family. The story, though, is divided between Lavinia and Belle, whose narrative offers candid views of slave life. Lavinia’s narrative is equally candid – showing everything from drug abuse to pedophilia. A lot of bad things happen to the characters in this book; it’s amazing anyone could see a light at the end of the tunnel.
I found the first half of the book to drag on, the middle to be gripping, and the ending to be rushed. Lavinia’s story, though, interested me enough to urge me forward. I question the historical accuracy of many aspects of this novel, especially how things fell together at the end, but all in all, The Great House was a good read. Fans of historical fiction should consider this book, especially if they enjoy tales about the Old South. ( )