Thursday, May 11, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is a lovely but painful-to-read “book club favorite” that we are reading for our next book group meeting.

Set in the early 1800s on a Virginia tobacco plantation, the story is told by two women whose lives intertwine there. Lavinia comes to the plantation as an orphaned six-year-old after her parents, Irish immigrants who were to be indentured servants, died on the ocean crossing. The master of the house sends her to be looked after by the slaves in the kitchen house. There, she is lovingly raised. She comes to see the enslaved family as her own. One of the members of her new family is Belle, the illegitimate daughter of the master. While her identity is not a secret to the slaves, the master’s wife, Miss Martha, misunderstands the affection he shows her. Miss Martha believes he has taken Belle as a mistress. Their son, Marshall, also comes to believe this and conceives an impassioned hatred for her.

No story immersed in a setting of slavery in the antebellum south can be anything but painful, and this is one I had to keep putting down to gather strength to continue. The evil of slavery is pervasive. The Black characters have love-filled lives and their own strength and dignity, but nevertheless, their tension is palpable. Their fates lie in the hands of lesser men, most immediately those of Marshall and the overseer, Rankin. Rankin is a stock character, a twisted and unredeemable sadist and rapist. Marshall is given a backstory, one of abuse and neglect, but this does not excuse the man he becomes.

The novel follows the lives of Lavinia and Belle. As they tell their stories, they also tell the stories of life on the plantation and what happens to the slaves focused on the kitchen house. (The field slaves, who live under far worse conditions, are shown only tangentially.) It’s a powerful book.

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