Saturday, March 17, 2018

I Finally Read The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Oh, Kitchen House.  You've been on my TBR list for years and years.  You've been sitting on my bookshelf for so long your pages are yellowed.  Why it took me so long to finally read you, I don't know.  Maybe I was afraid you wouldn't live up to my expectations.  Maybe it finally took reading Kitchen House for a book group that did it.  So now, I've finally read you, and I am feeling very torn in my feelings about the book. What?!

Told in alternating chapters between Lavinia, a young Irish indentured servant, and Belle, the slave (and secret daughter) of the Captain, owner of Tall Oaks Plantation, The Kitchen House takes place in late 1790's Virginia.  Miss Martha, wife of the Captain, is a delicate creature, who is convinced that Belle is the captain's lover; her two children Marshall and Sally are spoiled plantation kids.  Things start to go sour when a tutor is hired to teach Marshall.  Poor Marshall.  It's obvious he's being sexually abused by the tutor, but as the story is told through the eyes of a slave and a young, naive girl, there are plenty of hints, but he's never caught.  That tutor destroys Marshall, and Marshall ends up becoming a horrible adult.  When Marshall takes his anger out on his sister Sally, the tragic consequence sends Miss Martha into labor with her third child, and sends her mentally over the edge.  She's never the same again.  That's just one of the many tragedies that visit the slaves and owners of Tall Oaks.  No one is safe from the hardships and sadness that seem to arrive like clockwork.  

At the heart of this novel is the treatment of slaves, and the fact that there are slaves.  Knowing there were decades to go before emancipation made this a bit harder for me to read.  Lavinia was a bit of a frustration for me, as well.  She's just a young child when she arrives at Tall Oaks, rescued from a ship after her parents, Irish immigrants both die onboard.  With no other family (her brother Cardigan is taken away by someone else), the Captain brings Lavinia home, to be an indentured house servant.  After recovering from her ordeal, she ends up staying most of the time in the kitchen house, which is where all the meals were prepared, and situated away from the main house for safety's sake.  There, she is drawn into the loving family of Mama and Papa, Uncle Jacob, Ben, and Belle.  It doesn't matter to her that they are slaves; they are the family she needs, and they love her and take care of her.  It takes Lavinia years to understand that she is treated differently because she's white and they are black, and considered property.  As the years pass, Lavinia doesn't ever seem to really understand the complex relations that swirl around the plantation.  I found her naiveté to be annoying, and I wanted her to be a strong, capable woman.  I never felt like she achieved that at all.  

Yes, there is so much that happens in this novel.  People finding happiness, even if only for a brief time; tragedy upon tragedy; folks giving up on life; children neglected in their youth growing into unpleasant adults.  There's even the sadistic overseer who always appears at the worst times.  It's a definite soap opera.  

So, I did like the story, but I felt there was so much crammed into it, that there was never a peaceful time for anyone.  Will, as a neighbor who helps run Tall Oaks at certain times, was the most decent man in the whole bunch.  Lavinia I found to be annoying the most as an adult, trapped in a terrible marriage, and also trapped by the few options she had--but instead of fighting hard, she caved.  I was hoping for a heroine who really met life head on.  Lavinia wasn't that person.  Belle, poor Belle.  She never got a break, and was never acknowledged publicly as the daughter of the Captain.  

I'll be discussing this novel next week with my book group, and I'm interested in what they will say about it.  I felt it was a little too soap opera-ish, with a weak main character in Lavinia.  There weren't any surprises at all in the plot; I felt like I had read this storyline before.  

Rating:  2/6 for a solid story that shows a lot of research; but I felt Lavinia's naiveté held her back, and the novel suffered for it.  Too much drama, and just outright crazy happenings. Every plantation life trope was in this novel. 

Available in paperback, large print, audio, and ebook. The paperback also has book group questions to help guide discussion, if you need them. 

No comments :

Post a Comment