Orphaned on the overseas journey from Ireland to America, Lavinia is taken by the captain back to his tobacco plantation in Virginia where she is to work in the kitchen house. Although set-apart from the other slaves by the white of her skin, Lavinia soon finds herself adopted by her black counterparts. As she becomes accustomed to life as a slave and grows attached to her new family, the dividing line between what’s black and white becomes blurred. As she grows up it becomes clear that the color of Lavinia’s skin is going to have a greater say in her future than she would like. Destined for a different fate than those around her and not wanting to abandon those she cares for most, Lavinia is left with some heart-wrenching decisions that offer no other outcome than tragedy.
“...I would be in a position to cast favour on my waiting family, and I spent many hours daydreaming of how we might improve on their homes and find ways to ease their workload. I took the fantasy so far that I even believed it possible Marshall would give them their freedom one day...” The Kitchen House, page 233.
The Kitchen House is one of the most powerful novels I have read to date. Alcoholism, abuse, sexual violence and murder are some of the most painful aspects that make up this tragic yet heart warming tale of slavery at the turn of the nineteenth century. I am often irked when an author generates too many characters in their story, but in this case I found it more of a blessing. I fell in love with every last one of them. From the innocent Lavinia and her surrogate mother Belle to the evil and tormenting overseer Rankin, every one of Kathleen Grissom’s characters is as memorable as the rest. All of the characters illicit a deep sense of concern for their wellbeing. I truly could not put this book down. Any time I would myself thinking ‘yes, aha, I know exactly how this is going to turn out’, low and behold it turned out a far cry different. As painful and tragic a story as it is, I simply did not want it to end.
The dual narratives of Lavinia and Belle were, at first, somewhat irritating, but as the story progressed, I found myself anticipating the other character’s perspective. In the end, the only real bone I had to pick with Grissom was her lack of detail when it came to the most tragic scenes in the novel. A murder and several incidents of violence occur and are not accounted for very well. All of the positive events are described so as to leave the reader feeling overwhelmed as if they were actually there, but the darkest aspects of the story were swept away quickly perhaps to make it less traumatic for the reader. I was so engrossed in the characters lives that I truly wanted to be able to experience these tragic events with them so as to be able to further that connection. The story was still fantastic, but I think it would have benefitted even more from a better account of these dark details.
Lastly, I have to give Grissom kudos on what to me seemed like a very original twist on a widely covered topic. It could just be that I’m Canadian and am not as up on the history of slavery as I should be, but I can’t recall ever having heard of white indentured labourers during the time of slavery and found this a very appealing twist.