The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
Paperback: 384 pagesPublisher: Touchstone; Original edition (February 2, 2010)
Review copy provided by the publisher, Thank you!
The Burton Review Rating: You know it.. hello..
"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."
I couldn't have said it better myself. The synopsis states that this is a tragic story of page-turning suspense, and OH MY they weren't kidding! This is the story of a little white girl, Lavinia, who was orphaned during her family's journey to the states from Ireland, and she was so traumatized that she forgot what her name was. She becomes the property of the captain of the ship, and thankfully he seems like a gentle man. But upon her arrival she is given to the colored slaves to work with and upon doing so, Lavinia becomes accustomed to their way of life, and to living in the kitchen house.
The story is told in a dual first person narration from Lavinia starting when she was a young girl, to Belle, the young colored slave who takes Lavinia in. I found the narrations to be seamless and pleasing as the alternating shifts were not jarring or distracting to the story. There is so much to the story and I don't want to give any juicy details away. But there are a lot of behind the scene mixers going on, so along with other couplings, it turns out that Belle is actually the captain's daughter, but the captain's family do not know this fact. Therefore, the wife and the son firmly believe that Belle and the captain are lovers, when indeed they are just bonded by blood. This causes a ripple effect of deception and incest and ultimate horrid realizations as this fact remains hidden to those that should know.
I was so endeared to the slaves, the Negroes (the author's word used in its historical context only) and the quarters where the poorest of the Negroes were. There are different social classes amongst the blacks and the whites and how the families mingle. The plight of slavery is such a sad one, many were without hope yet Belle wants to stay and serve the captain's family. This is what becomes of Belle's life, to be a servant. Yet when she could have the opportunity to get her free papers from the captain, she doesn't press too hard. She wants to stay with what she knows, and who she knows. This is her family. And the servants are a wonderful family to get to know as the story unfolds; they are loyal, steadfast and completely lovable. Each one of the characters from Jimmy, Ben, Uncle, Mama, Beattie, Fanny.. I was drawn to them all.
And of course there is Lavinia. She is growing up beautifully from age 6 to 16.. becoming a part of the servant's family until she is finally taken to be educated properly as a white woman. And she even becomes engaged to an older man, a widower, which would seem like the best thing for an orphan raised as a servant could hope for. But of course, it was not.
The captain's son seemed to love Lavinia... and the captain's neighbor did too. So what is Lavinia going to do? Can she live among the servants who are her family, and live happily ever after? No, this is a story that is told with grit, and it is full of traumatic scenes, dramatic scenes, and it doesn't work out too wonderfully for Lavinia. The ending was not perfect, and not everyone would get what they want. Things didn't seem clear with the way it ended and I feel it could have been drawn out a bit more with the same sense of evil traumatic suspense that gripped me from the first page. The prose from the very beginning was so perfectly written that I felt like I was right there watching the drama enfold.
This book took over my soul.. and I could not put it down until I finished with it. No kidding. I stopped for potty breaks and to avert the kiddos from sudden disaster, and I read. I inhaled it. It devoured me. It captured my soul, my heart, these whites and blacks mingling back in the days they weren't supposed to and causing good things and bad things to happen. This is a must read. Absolute must read for those interested in America, how it was born, and who we are and why we should be thankful for the mere fact we are here today, and not back then. I would love to lend my copy out, but I am going to re-read this one. It's a keeper. There are lessons to be learned, and this is just one heck of a fantastic story.
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