The Kitchen House
By Kathleen Grissom
Touchstone Books (Simon & Schuster)
February 2, 2010
"I don't know! Mostly it seems like I'm part of this family, but in church I have to go up front and sit with the white people. I want to sit with the twins, and they can't come up with me, and I can't go back by them. You aren't my real mama, and Belle isn't either. Where will I go when I grow up? And I don't want to live in a big house, either!"
When Kathleen Grissom and her husband restored a plantation tavern in Virginia several years ago, Grissom, while researching the property, found an old map with a reference to "Negro Hill." According to local historians, the name suggested tragedy. Haunted by this discovery, Grissom would often walk by that very spot wondering what had come to pass there, until one day, in "my mind's eye, I saw a scene play out clear as a movie." That vision became the prologue to her award-winning debut novel The Kitchen House, also inspired by the news that a family friend had traced his ancestry back to an indentured servant from Ireland.
Described as "Gone with the Wind turned upside down," The Kitchen House tells the dual story of Lavinia the orphaned Irish girl and Belle, the daughter of a slave and her master. The setting is Virginia from 1791 through 1810, the post-Revolutionary era in which slavery was widespread even in the North. Seven-year-old Lavinia has been brought to the Tall Oaks tobacco plantation by its owner, a sea captain to whom Lavinia's late parents owed payment for their passage from Ireland. Traumatized to the point of amnesia by the loss of her family, Lavinia is set to work in the "kitchen house" with the other house "servants," including Belle, whose blood relationship with the captain is kept secret. As the years go by, Lavinia's lowly station allows her to transcend the color barrier and form deep bonds with the black slaves she lives among. But her race increasingly sets her apart, giving her privileges and opportunities utterly denied to African-Americans. And in the antebellum South, the final result can only be death, disaster, and heartbreak.
Although Grissom's considerable research is well-exhibited, the real focus of The Kitchen House is its characters, particularly Lavinia, who provides the bulk of the first-person narrative. Though she can hardly be described as sheltered, Lavinia is nevertheless distinguished by an almost willful naivety that prefers to turn away when reality rears its ugly head. Belle's mature, knowledgeable voice occasionally interjects to provide balance, its brushes of slave dialect forming an ironic contrast to Lavinia's educated descriptions of tea parties and courtship in Williamsburg. Still, Lavinia never forgets that it was her black family, long acquainted with suffering and endurance, who gave her the emotional strength to heal and move forward. And while it would have been both easy and tempting to portray the wealthy white characters as simply spoiled, apathetic, or tyrannical, Grissom instead gives us a individuals as varied and deeply human as their black counterparts.
Marshall Pyke, the captain's son and heir, is especially memorable. On the one hand, he is the proverbial slave master of infamy: he is a virulent racist who rapes the women, brutalizes his field hands, drinks heavily, and tears apart slave families to pay his gambling debts. In Grissom's hands, however, he is also a victim of abuse slowly corrupted by the society he lives in, with the excess of power granted to members of his race, class, and gender. If his father softens the plantation system's image in the beginning, Marshall comes to exemplify every vice inherent to the seigneurial culture of the Old South. (Strangely enough, he actually made me think of Darth Vader, as the good, sweet kid who falls to the dark side and brings ruin to his entire family.)
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 did note a couple of gaps in the historical aspect of the story, in that the recent American Revolution is never mentioned and the era's anti-Irish prejudice seemed non-existent. While we may think of white people today as a monolithic racial bloc, many European ethnicities faced oppression and discrimination throughout the nineteenth century, and I felt that part was rather neglected. But overall, 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. I look forward to Kathleen Grissom's next offering.
For a fascinating account of the relationship between white indentured servants and black slaves in the Caribbean and North America, I strongly recommend Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh's The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Although its Marxist perspective is problematic, it is an incredibly eye-opening work.