Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Chosen for my bookclub this past month, we seem to have a fondness for historical fiction. Quite honestly, I tend to prefer my historical fiction not be set in the antebellum South so I was definitely leary of reading this book. It's not so much that the topic doesn't interest me as much as it is that I know for an author to do the subject justice, the details need to be vivid and brutal. But I try for the most part to be a good little follower and read anything that is chosen for the group, even as I wince inwardly. And this book described many a situation that made me wince, shiver with revulsion, and want to hide my eyes and stop my ears.

Opening with the adult Lavinia scrambling towards the plantation house, hampered by her young daughter, but desperate to try and get to the house before the terrible event she's anticipating happens, the novel then goes back in time to Lavinia's very arrival at Tall Oaks and subsequent installation in the kitchen house. What makes Lavinia different in the kitchen house is that she's an Irish indentured servant rather than a slave. Her parents died on the boat journey so she is committed to the care of the Belle, the master's slave daughter. As Lavinia grows, since she is a servant, she is kept mainly in the company of the slaves, who come to form her family. But because she is white and so young, they don't enlighten her as to some of the terrible things they must endure simply because of their black skin. In addition to Lavinia's oftentimes naive narration, her slave foster mother, Belle, narrates as well. And in Belle's narration, there are no holds barred. There's murder, rape, and mutilation just for a start.

As Lavinia grows older, despite her love and respect for the Big House slaves, she is thrust more and more into the white world where her attachment to Mama Mae and Papa George is dangerous to them, a fact that Lavinia seems unable or unwilling to grasp. But Lavinia's desire to not forsake the family who has loved her for so long isn't the only dangerous thing in this tale. The most dangerous of all are the myriad of secrets that so many of the characters harbor and which change and destroy lives and lead to the eventual catastrophic climax alluded to in the prologue.

This novel was a very quick read, especially since the reader knows from the very beginning that there is a violent death coming. The quick glimpse into the future of the story served to keep the suspense and dramatic tension up the majority of the time. However, choosing to use two narrators unfortunately led on occasion to duplication of particular plot points which made certain sections a bit tedious to read as they added very little to the overall plot. The characters were, for the most part, fairly black or white (no pun intended). The good people were almost uniformly good and the bad people were almost entirely evil, making it easy to choose to root for the appropriate side, but which served to make the characters less real than they might have been. Despite the flaws and the dark and brutal nature of the tale itself, it was a generally addictive read. Not the South of Gone With the Wind, nor the South of modern eccentricity so common in contemporary-set novels, this is a hostile picture of the South but one that ends on an almost incongruously hopeful note. Fans of Southern set historical fiction will definitely enjoy this novel.


  1. I haven't heard of this book. Always nice to hear about new historical fiction. Glad it was good!

  2. One of my book clubs is reading this book this month and I'm hoping to read it too. I'm glad to hear that it is a quick read!

  3. My book club has also picked this book for April I think it is. I look forward to reading it.


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