Thursday, July 11, 2024

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House
by Kathleen Grissom 
384 pages
Published February 2010 by Atria Books

Publisher's Summary: 
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.

My Thoughts: 
This is a book that's been on my to-be-read list for years. When I was creating my book club's reading list for 2024, I looked at that list for ideas and noted that this one was also on a lot of lists of best books for book clubs. Before I get into my thoughts on this book, let me tell you two things that may sway your opinion of the book. Number one - every one in my book club really liked this book. Number two - it was a great book for a discussion. That may be, in part, due to my opinions about the book, which pushed people to have to defend it. 
  • It felt quite melodramatic and was made more so because everything terrible that could possibly go wrong did. To the point that it lost any tension - I already knew what was going to happen. 
  • Too many stereotypes for me - the evil overseer (a la Simon Legree in Uncle Tom's Cabin), the mamee who mothers both her own children and the those in the big house, the damsel in distress lady of the house. 
  • Entirely too many cases of miscommunication that lead to tragedies for years. 
  • I felt like Grissom missed the boat with Marshall. Fair enough, so many terrible things happened to him growing up - an absent father, sexual abuse at the hands of a man his father defended, his mother's lack of caring for him and idolization of his sister, an attachment to a man who lead him astray, a growing hatred of the enslaved people, and alcoholism. One reviewer suggested the book would have been better if Marshall had been an attentive, loving husband to Lavinia and then an evil man with Belle and the other blacks...a Jekyll/Hyde. I definitely agree. We never see anything redeeming about him after a point. 
  • I honestly just want to slap Lavinia again and again. Yes, she was young when she came to the plantation; yes, she was white but raised by and lived with the enslaved people. They were her family. Still, she never really seemed to grasp the division between the two. Then there was a very important packet she saw delivered and then completely forgot about for nearly the entire book; the marriage to Marshall, a man she had already known to have a fiery temper; and her belief that Belle's son's father was a man she might have ended up with had it not been for this and her inability to see what was plain to see just by looking at the boy. 
My book club worked hard to change my mind; but, in the end, I felt like this book missed its very real potential. 

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