The Kitchen House
Author Kathleen Grissom brings us a gripping tale of the South during the days of slavery. The story is told from two different perspectives: Belle, the mulatto daughter of plantation owner Captain Pyke, and Lavinia, a white girl from Ireland who is sent to work in the “kitchen house” with Belle and other “nigras.”
Belle, whose mother was a slave, was born on the plantation. Lavinia is an indentured servant whose parents came from Ireland on a boat owned by Captain Pyke. Both her parents die on the voyage, but she and her brother, Campbell, survive. While Campbell is sent to be a servant in another city, Lavinia goes to live on Pyke’s plantation.
Lavinia is only seven years old when her parents pass away. The experience is so traumatic that, for several months, she has no memory of the event. She is cared for partly by Belle and partly by Mama Mae, a black slave who is in charge of the female slaves. Even though Lavinia is white skinned, she develops a deep bond with the blacks on the plantation, going so far as to call them “her family.”
Captain Pyke is a busy merchant and spends much of his time away from home. He leaves the plantation in charge of his weak, sickly wife, Martha, and Mr. Rankin, the overseer who is hungry for power. When the Pykes’ youngest daughter, Sally, dies, Martha is overcome with grief and turns to laudanum for comfort. Mr. Rankin sees this as an opportunity to run the place the way he sees fit, which is to say that he makes life miserable for everybody. Add in Mr. Waters, the male tutor who abuses the plantation owner’s son, Marshall, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Lavinia is only 11 years old when she meets Will Stephens, who is employed by the Captain. Although they are many years apart in age, Lavinia has a major crush on this much older man, and as she grows older, she realizes she loves him. Will falls in love with her, too, though she doesn’t know it. Through a chain of miscommunications, they never have the chance to declare their love for each other until it is too late.
Just before her 13th birthday, Captain Pyke dies. Lavinia is sent away from the plantation to live with Martha’s sister, Sarah, and her husband in Williamsburg. For the most part, she is happy there, but she longs to go “back home” to Tall Oaks. She achieves her desires when she marries Marshall Pyke and becomes the mistress of the plantation. Unfortunately, her dreams for a peaceful life in her childhood “home” are shattered when the truth of her husband’s drunkenness and marital infidelities are revealed. She is also faced with the reality of the clearly drawn line on the plantation between the whites and the blacks. As the new mistress, she is no longer permitted to call the slaves her family; they are simply her slaves now.
Kathleen Grissom’s first novel explores the well-known side of the dark world of slavery as well as the not-so-well-known world of white slavery, or indentured servitude. The book is written in a manner that is fast paced and action packed, making it difficult to put down. Grissom is currently working on her second novel, and I’m sure it will be just as successful as her debut.
Reviewed by Christine M. Irvin on January 22, 2011