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The Kitchen House: A Novel Paperback – Feb 2 2010
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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.” (Bookreporter.com)
“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.” (mommysreading.wordpress.com)
“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.” (thisbookandicouldbefriends.com)
“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.” (bookaholicmom.blogspot.com)
“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.” (thebluestockings.com)
“Unique and intriguing.” (readersrespite.blogspot.com)
“The endearing characters ingratiate themselves in your heart. . . . I most definitely recommend this book.” (historical-fiction.com)
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Lavinia was only seven-years-old when she was bought by Captain Pike. Her parents had died during the voyage to America from Ireland on one of his ships. Captain Pike placed the traumatized child in the care of his secret daughter, Belle, one of his Kitchen House black slaves. Lavinia quickly grew to love her new adopted family. It wasn’t until ten years later that she would realize what it truly meant to be owned, black, and working, in the fields of a rich man’s plantation.
Captain Pike, was not an evil slave master, but his overseer was. Captain Pike was rarely home, so he didn’t have a true picture of what was happening on his plantation. If he did, he would have stopped the inhuman treatment of his slaves by the overseer. And he certainly would have never allowed his son Marshall to be taken advantage of and abused by the tutor he hired. But Captain Pike wasn’t around, and these things did occur.
At age seventeen, Lavinia was freed from her indentured servanthood. She quickly married into the family and became the mistress of Tall Oaks Plantation. Her goal was to make a better life for the slaves. She had always treated them like family. Unfortunately, as a mistress, she was no longer permitted to treat black slaves as equals. Any kindnesses she showed towards them were swiftly met with a harsh beating from her husband. The slaves of Tall Oaks didn’t abandon Lavinia during this dark period of her life.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
Great read of plantation life stories. Enjoyed it so much I read the sequel right after.Published 26 days ago by Ginger McClelland
Though this was a tragic story of slavery at its worst, it was balanced by the loyalty and love of unforgettable characters that will live with me. Read morePublished 3 months ago by alwayscurious
I bought this one because a friend of mine in Saskatchewan told me I should try it. I'm originally from Saskatchewan as well and like to support local authors. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Amazon Customer
Really good book and shows how very much not everyone knows or shows racismPublished 5 months ago by Josephine
I couldn't put this book down! I immediately became attached to each of the characters in their uniqueness and the villains of the story continued to repulse me and keep me... Read morePublished 7 months ago by Kerrie Schwandt