When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family. Orphaned while onboard ship from Ireland, seven-year-old Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family, though she is set apart from them by her white skin.
Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare, and lives are put at risk.
The Kitchen House was one of our book club reads, and I’m sorry to say I did not pick it. This book was beautiful. The characters were tangible and you care about their well-being from the moment you are introduced to them. The story line is a bit different from most slave related fiction. Lavinia is actually an indentured servant as opposed to a slave. She is white, but because her parents die in transit from Ireland, she becomes the property of the Captain due to money owed. Upon arriving home with a little white girl he has no intention of keeping in the big house, the Captain gives her to Belle to look after. The rest of the tale, tells Lavinia’s interesting story of living on a rural, southern plantation as a white slave.
As I stated before, these characters are tangible to the reader. You want to climb into Mama’s lap and let her pat you and sing you to sleep. You feel Belle’s love and hate for her father and brother. You share Lavinia’s confusion about where she belongs. Kathleen Grissom does each character justice, even the not-so-lovely ones. All the way through the book, I kept wondering if these were real people, if Grissom was simply breathing live into people who had really existed. Either way, they are real to you by the end.
As much as I love a great character-driven book, there is much, much more to enjoy here. The story line carries you through Lavinia’s extremely tumultuous life, from being nothing but a slave, to being the belle of the ball, and back again. There is a lot of conflict and it often comes from very unexpected sources. It makes you question where “home” really lies and what makes a family a family. There are tons of twists and turns which keep you guessing all the way through. Not to mention, Grissom’s writing is spot on.
It is not often I find a book flawless, but this one definitely falls into that category.
I challenge you to read this book and not fall in love with at least one of the characters. Grissom has filled these pages to the brim with life, love, hatred, and heartache. I highly recommend The Kitchen House for book clubs because there is so much meat to chew on during and after reading. I wholeheartedly encourage you to give this one a read!