The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is a fantastic book, containing all the elements of great storytelling: richly rendered characters, compelling plot, and a completely satisfying conclusion. Grissom tells her story with honesty, passion, and conviction and we are carried away on her energy, living in the world she has created and feeling the pains, sorrows, and joys of her characters. Set in late 18th century turning into 19th century Virginia on a slave-owning plantation, Grissom gets her historical elements just right, painting a vibrant picture of a brand-new country and the harsh realities of the indentured servants and black slaves upon whose backs the country ‘s economy grew.
Testament to Grissom’s gift of writing is in how I finished the book in one day (it was so gripping, I could not put it down) and in how I keep on thinking about her characters even now, days after I’ve finished reading the book. I cared so much about all of the characters and about the lives they were trying to figure out for themselves. Grissom is too good a writer to paint her characters as simplistic representations of good and evil; there are a few thoroughly rotten characters but the main characters are complex in their motivations and genuine in their aspirations to make sense of the world in which they live. I felt pain for all of them, and hung onto hope that by the end of the novel, some basic justice would be served and goodness rewarded. I won’t give the ending away but the finale is moving, realistic, grievous, and yet open-ended enough to allow hope to survive.
Lavinia, the main narrator, is an Irish girl, an indentured servant to a Virginia plantation sent to serve in the Kitchen House along with the more favored of the Black slaves. Belle is one of the slaves, child of a white owner and black slave. Lavinia, Belle, Mama Mae, Beattie, Fanny, Ben, and other slaves, true flesh and blood characters as sketched by Grissom, are all property of the Captain. Their futures depend on his attention, his whims, and his care, and rise and fall accordingly. And like the slaves, the Captain’s own family suffers or prospers depending upon the his attention; they are property as well, and although better tended, still disempowered. How the slaves and the family members seek to find power, define themselves, and maintain promise in their futures is the backbone of this book. The heart and soul of the novel is its depiction of the damages inflicted by the system of slavery — its ruthless and arbitrary wielding of power — and by the economic, legal, and political inequalities of the time that cut across color lines, imprisoning women in their place, servants in their positions, and slaves in their quarters.
The Kitchen House reminded me of Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, in which a black woman from twentieth century California is transported back to antebellum Maryland and slavery. Both novels depict the terrible toll taken on human beings forced into positions of complete and utter disempowerment, subject to the whims and lusts of owners, the cruelties of overseers, and with no prospects for freedom. Both novels also explore the impact slavery had on the whites: they benefited from the system and yet they were soul-branded and heart-twisted by the inescapable horror of it. Slavery sought to make one race the beasts of burden of another but succeeded in dehumanizing both.
I recommend The Kitchen House as a great read, enthralling, moving, and unforgettable.