The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Thursday, September 27, 2012

There is no shortage of historical fiction that examines the relationship between slaveowners and their slaves in the 18th century.  The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom, takes that theme and gives it a twist.  The novel is told by two narrators-Lavinia, an Irish indentured servant brought to the plantation as a small child, and Belle, the mulatto daughter of the owner, the Cap'n, who lives and works in the kitchen house.  Lavinia is raised with the slave children, but because she is white the Cap'n always had other plans for her.  Having lived in Ireland prior to coming to the plantation, Lavinia does not understand the complexities of the racial boundaries in 18th century America, and in her naivete she often unintentionally creates problems for her "family"-the black slaves that she lived with for most of her childhood.

When Lavinia becomes a teen, she is sent to live with the family of the captain's wife.  There, she is brought into the household as a young woman being groomed for a respectable marriage and the life of a white woman in plantation society.  Despite the kindness shown to her during this time, she longs to return home to her "family", never realizing how different their lives have become.  Through family tragedies, brutal abuse, and failed marriages, the characters of The Kitchen House demonstrate the corrosive nature of oppression and slavery on the men and women affected by it.

I read this novel with a sick sense of inevitability.  Having read many such stories in the past, I had more than enough background knowledge to know that things were not likely to turn out happily for the residents of Tall Oaks plantation.  But the unusual main characters and the seeming reasonableness of some of the white characters gave me a small hope that perhaps this time history would be different.  The fact is that in the end there was tragedy, but there was also hope and at least some peace for Lavinia, Belle, and the other slaves.  Grissom's treatment of the captain's wife, Miss Martha, and Lavinia herself, highlighted the similarities between the oppression of women and blacks in the antebellum south.  Miss Martha may have lived in the big house and been waited on by house slaves, but she had little more freedom than they when it came to making decisions about her life.  I think that Grissom did a good job in showing how the rigid social norms of the slave/slave-owner society negatively affected everyone in some way.  Sympathetic whites were forced to support and promote treatment of slaves that went against what reason and compassion would say was right; the oppressed minorities scrambled daily to forestall the anger and violence simmering just below the surface of the plantation; and other whites-especially white men tasked with "working" the slaves-became brutal and mean as a result of the culture of oppression that led to their unchecked power over others.

The book, while chock full of meaning, was also a page-turner. I had to keep reading to see if my sense of unease really did lead to the inevitable tragedy I imagined was coming..  I described it to some friends as soap opera in a historical context.  The misunderstandings and missed opportunities led to romantic entanglements right out of a Gothic romance.  But unlike historical romance books, which are basically love stories lightly dipped in history, the historical context of the relationships in this book are an integral part of the story.

Love, by Toni Morrison

Monday, September 24, 2012

Faithful readers, you may have noticed it's been a month since my last post.  Must be the start of a new school year!  And this year, I have a new job, though at the same school.  What new job could it be, you ask?   I am a (wait for it...) READING COACH!  That's right, I get to spend my days helping teachers plan the best reading instruction to inspire new generations of readers-and I get to read children's and young adult books and get paid for it!  So, after a short blogging hiatus I am ready to get back to writing.

For some reason, I though that the beginning of a new school year would be a great time to start a Toni Morrison book.  Don't get me wrong I love everything about her and her work.  She is on the list of people whose warm, brilliant glow I would like to bask in as they share all of their wisdom about life.  My greatest dream would be to sit at the feet of Ms. Morrison and Maya Angelou and listen to them discuss the human experience as they understand it.  However, I'm not entirely sure I had enough cognitive power left over from learning a new job and working my tail off to fully appreciate the lyrical power that is Toni Morrison's story-telling when I started reading Love.

Love is the story of two women, bonded first by friendship and then by hatred, tied together by one man.  Heed Johnson and Christine Cosey are childhood friends.  Christine, the granddaughter of a wealthy black hotel owner, and Heed, the daughter of a poor, disreputable family, become fast friends, despite Christine's mother's disapproval at her daughter's fondness for the impoverished Heed.  All is well until Bill Cosey, Christine's grandfather, decides to take an 11-year-old Heed as his new wife.  While Heed celebrates her "good" fortune, Christine and her mother begin to see her as a threat.  Thus begins a feud that outlasts Bill Cosey, the hotel he owned, and most of the late 20th century.  In the end, the two women are left with nothing but a decaying house and their hatred towards each other.

Of course, I say in the end, but in actuality Morrison begins the novel when the women are old.  The narrative flows back and forth through time effortlessly.  This non-linear storytelling is a hallmark of most of Morrison's writing.  She also returns to one of her strongest themes for this novel, that of the relationships between women and how they are affected by race and class and sexism.  Heed and Christine are surrounded by a cast of characters each with a specific purpose.  Bill Cosey represents the "new" class of coloreds that rose up in the 1940s, when his upscale hotel drew black performers and celebrities alike.  He also represents the oppression that still existed for black women within their communities, even as some of their men began to gain wealth and power.  Of course, Bill Cosey also represents the idea of "separate but equal", as his goal was never to create an integrated resort, and indeed the white town leaders with whom he became so chummy would not have stood for it if he had.  Christine's mother May represented the fear and anxiety that struck the black community in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.  Convinced that the sweeping social changes taking place in the country were going to make the whites come and run them out, she took to hiding important papers, food, and supplies all over the small Florida community where they lived.  Celestial, Bill Cosey's mistress, represented both the myth of the oversexed woman, as well as the idea of freedom and licence.  The fact was that the other women in the community judged her harshly for her sexual freedom, and she just didn't care.  And there was Junior, a recently released ex-con from a juvenile detention center, convicted of killing her warden when she was 11 when he tried to sexually assault her.  Junior comes into the tense standoff between Heed and Christine and immediately tries to find ways to take advantage of their long-standing feud, picking both sides in the battle to inherit Bill Cosey's home so whatever happens, she'll be on the winning side.

This is a short novel, but it is rich in beauty and meaning.  Anyone familiar with Toni Morrison's work will immediately recognize everything that makes her writing so superlative-excellent characters, lyrical prose, and the ability to call attention to the subtle ways in which people are affected by repression and oppression.