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The Kitchen House: A Novel [Paperback]

Kathleen Grissom
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 2 2010
In this gripping New York Times bestseller, Kathleen Grissom brings to life a thriving plantation in Virginia in the decades before the Civil War, where a dark secret threatens to expose the best and worst in everyone tied to the estate.

Orphaned during her passage from Ireland, young, white Lavinia arrives on the steps of the kitchen house and is placed, as an indentured servant, under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate slave daughter. Lavinia learns to cook, clean, and serve food, while guided by the quiet strength and love of her new family.

In time, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, caring for the master’s opium-addicted wife and befriending his dangerous yet protective son. She attempts to straddle the worlds of the kitchen and big house, but her skin color will forever set her apart from Belle and the other slaves.

Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds.

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Product Description

Quill & Quire

Saskatchewan-born Kathleen Grissom’s debut novel is a forthright, albeit overwrought, look at plantation life before the American Civil War. It focuses primarily on the women who lived through it, both up in the big house and in the shacks down below. Their joys, struggles, and heartbreaks are embodied in Lavinia, a seven-year-old Irish orphan brought home by Captain James Pyke, the owner of a tobacco plantation.

Though she is white, Lavinia is indentured to the family. She works alongside the slaves Mama Mae, Papa George, Belle (the captain’s illegitimate daughter), and a slew of children in the kitchen house, which is a place of privilege on the plantation. The slaves – a motley family unit themselves – dust, nurse, and cook for the Pykes in exchange for their relatively comfortable accommodations and other luxuries, like shoes. Inevitably, Lavinia realizes that, as a white girl, she must conform to a certain caste, one that doesn’t include her newfound black “family.”

The novel spans 19 years, during which Lavinia’s experience mirrors that of the slaves in the kitchen house but contains an additional level: as a white orphan, she is an outsider according to both the haves and the have-nots. Grissom creates parallels between many of the novel’s female characters, emphasizing that each one – even the mistress of the house – is subjugated in some way. Sex (usually in the form of rape) unifies the women and illustrates their powerlessness. This is an obvious device, but one that Grissom uses delicately to build and rebuild sisterly bonds among her female characters.

Unfortunately, the rest of the plot does not have the same nuance. Grissom has a penchant for manufacturing tragedy after tragedy to move the story forward. After the first 100 pages, the phrase “Go get Mama” loses its gut-wrenching punch.

Though there are several compelling insights in The Kitchen House, it’s nevertheless a formulaic story. There are graphic shocks, but no surprises. Grissom has clearly done extensive research into plantation life, but the cruelty and injustice of slavery is never really spoken of except in very conventional terms. Ignoring the brutal reality of slavery is, ultimately, what differentiates this novel from its betters.


“I recommend The Kitchen House. This novel, like The Help, does important work.” (Alice Walker)

“A touching tale of oppressed women, black and white . . . [This novel] about love, survival, friendship, and loss in the antebellum South should not be missed.” (The Boston Globe)

"Forget Gone with the Wind . . . a story that grabs the reader and demands to be devoured. Wow." (MInneapolis Star-Tribune)

“To say Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House is a page-turner wouldn’t do it justice . . . Grissom breaks away from the gate at a fast clip, the reader hanging on for the ride.” (Durham Herald-Sun)

“Tension lurks everywhere, propelling the story forward [and] ample amounts of drama . . . Captivates with its message of right and wrong, family, and hope.” (Sacramento/San Francisco Book Review)

The Kitchen House combines a history lesson with a compulsively readable melodrama.’ (Wilmington Star-News)

“Out of the ordinary.” (Romantic Times Book Review)

“[Grissom’s] . . . debut twists the conventions of the antebellum novel. . . . Provides a trove of tension and grit, while the many nefarious doings will keep readers hooked to the twisted, yet hopeful, conclusion.” (Publishers Weekly)

“[A] pulse-quickening debut.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“A gripping tale of the South during the days of slavery. . . . 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.” (

“You will be thrilled by this intimate and surprising story that connects us with an unexpected corner of our history. Kathleen Grissom gives us a new and unforgettable perspective on slavery and families and human ties in the Old South, exploring the deepest mysteries of the past that help define who we are to this day.” (Robert Morgan, bestselling author of the Oprah Book Club selection Gap Creek)

“Kathleen Grissom peers into the plantation romance through the eyes of a white indentured servant inhabiting the limbo land between slavery and freedom, providing a tale that provokes new empathy for all working and longing in The Kitchen House.” (Alice Randall, author of The Wind Done Gone and Rebel Yell)

“This book was fantastic. It was the wow book that I have been waiting for all year.” (

“With its quick pace and well-drawn cast, The Kitchen House became one of only two books so far (the other being The Fellowship of the Ring) to catch such hold of me that I found myself sneaking it at work. . . . I found The Kitchen House to be a powerful, gripping debut novel that gives a real human face to the tragedies of yesterday that continue to trouble us today.” (

“Once you get involved in the story of Lavinia and Belle you will not want to put this book down. I enjoyed this book very much and I highly recommend it. Don’t read it too fast. You don’t want to miss one morsel of this book.” (

“This turned out to be exactly the book I needed to get me back into the reading groove. . . . The writing flowed so seamlessly that I can’t believe that this is Grissom’s first novel.” (

“Unique and intriguing.” (

“The endearing characters ingratiate themselves in your heart. . . . I most definitely recommend this book.” (

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant story! May 9 2010
By Myckyee
The Kitchen House was an absolutely wonderful reading experience.

What I liked best about this book were the characters. They became people I wanted to know. When something good happened I was happy for them and sad when a not-so-great event occurred. The author made fictional characters seem so real that they jumped off the page. More than once I was brought to tears and felt real sympathy for these people. Most of the characters were complex personalities dealing with complex problems. Though the main antagonist (and it could be argued just who the main antagonist is) is not likeable, the character was written with sympathy and while I did not excuse his behavior, I could easily understand the reasons behind his conduct.

The other great thing about The Kitchen House was the plot. My heart was pounding after reading the first page. I didn't know exactly what was going on but the small bit that I read gave me a powerful sense of fear, anxiety and curiosity. From there on, the story developed into the drama, hardship and joy a close-knit family experiences in the slave quarters of a large plantation. The story moved quickly and I was so engrossed I couldn't believe it when it ended. I still want to spend time with these people!

I loved The Kitchen House and wholeheartedly recommend it for book clubs - I think it would generate very lively discussions.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Enjoyed this book from start to finish. I became captivated with the residents of the "Kitchen House" and was touched by the love and loyalty they shared with each. The storyline (although sometimes tender and at other times, very harsh) moves along very effortlessly and the book held my interest to the extent that I could not put it down until the end. Thank you Kathleen Grissom.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of my top reads this year June 4 2010
By Luanne Ollivier #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Every so often a book just reaches out and grabs you. The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom was one of those books for me.

It's 1791. Lavinia is 7 yrs old and her entire family has perished on the boat from Ireland to America. The captain takes her to his own plantation as an indentured servant. She is sent to live with the slaves who run the kitchen house. Abinia, as she comes to be known, is welcomed into the hearts and homes of Mama Mae, her daughter Belle (who is the captain's illegitimate daughter) and their extended families. They love her as one of their own, despite the fact that she is white.

As Lavinia grows, she is taken to the big house to help with the captain's wife, who is battling an addiction to opium. It is here that Lavinia finally has to acknowledge the chasm between black and white, master and slave. And where her place is. As she grows older, circumstances conspire and she is forced to make difficult choices that have grievous repercussions. This is s a very bare bones synopsis as there is so much more to this book.

Grissom forced me to break one of my cardinal rules. I never, ever, read ahead in a book. I got so caught up in the story, the characters and the hurtling plot that I was reading way too fast to take it all in. I had to find out what happened, then go back and slowly take the journey to the event.

Grissom's descriptions of the settings, social life, characters and dialogue truly had them jumping off the page. Indeed, Grissom herself says that "For the most part, Lavinia and Belle dictated the story to me. From the beginning it became quite clear that if I tried to embellish or change their story, their narration would stop.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A griping tale June 9 2011
I couldn't put The Kitchen House down. It is a griping tale and would make a wonderful movie. I enjoyed the historical information and how well Kathleen Grissom takes the reader back into the eighteenth century. She paints such a graphic picture of the times and people you feel you have been there. If someone has read The Book of Negroes they will certainly also enjoy The Kitchen House.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Kitchen House Oct. 24 2011
By Nancy TOP 1000 REVIEWER
I thoroughly enjoyed this story. It was a page turner from the beginning and tugged at heart strings in many places. The characters were real and, like any good story, you hated to leave them when the last page was read. I couldn't seem to stop reading late into the night with this novel! I highly recommend it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Good Read March 20 2012
This book was a very good read. The author writes with detail that has you imagining exactly how the characters look and feel throughout the entire book. She manages to bring out emotion in the way she describes situations and events that happen in this book. It is a real page turner with twists & turns.
This book brings up tough issues with perspective to shed light on the history in the south. Great read and would recommend this to anyone who isn't disturbed by the subject matter.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read... Oct. 8 2011
By K
I chose to buy this book because I wanted to read something from an author I'd never heard of before. The subject matter was interesting and the book was well written. I did not give it 5 stars because the plot line was not original - I have read similar stories before and I found the story line was predictable. But having said that, if you want to sit and read a good book, this one will fit the bill, and I don't think you'll be disappointed.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Yet another book that sheds more light on the past ...
Yet another book that sheds more light on the past treatment of black people in America. Unfortunately, as this book showed, even white people suffered because of the attitudes of... Read more
Published 22 days ago by sheila robinson
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Fast and efficient
Published 1 month ago by Linda L Tatler
4.0 out of 5 stars A great read!
Engrossing and textured, authentic and believable. I fell in love with the characters in this story. Just a great, well written story I highly recommend.
Published 2 months ago by ER
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book. Worth reading
Good book. Worth reading. I found the story fell apart a bit in the last third of the book.
Published 3 months ago by K. G. Lakes
2.0 out of 5 stars meh
I was disappointed by this book. It sounded like a good story but not really worth reading. I don't recommend it
Published 4 months ago by JP
3.0 out of 5 stars Good read
The novel doesn't offer as much depth about slavery as others before it, but it is a good read. The story itself is a southern pot boiler and because the central character is a... Read more
Published 4 months ago by vipattie
5.0 out of 5 stars Could not put it down
From the first page, I was put into a time and place that I did not know existed. I did not want the book to end. Read more
Published 4 months ago by sandy malich
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read
I had a hard time putting this book down, it was very interesting right from the first page to the last page.
Published 4 months ago by Denyse
5.0 out of 5 stars kitchen house
Excellent story of Maritime town and the midwife who lived there. I read it ages ago so can't remember all the details but just that I enjoyed it very much - sorry
Published 5 months ago by jacqueline farquhar
4.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Read
A very heatfelt story of unconditional love, human strength, treachery and betrayal.
The characters were very believable, some admirable, some despicable . Read more
Published 5 months ago by Elizabeth Sokell
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