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.

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