Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Kitchen House

The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom

I am ambivalent about this book. It took me awhile to get into, partly because I have been in the process of recovering from ear surgery, and  partly because at the beginning I had troubles keeping all of the various characters straight. Kathleen Grissom has a narrator form of voice--more telling than showing--and that probably contributed to my initial boredom.

After I became more familiar with the characters, I was gradually drawn into the story of Lavinia, an indentured Irish servant, and her adopted family of African-American slaves on a plantation in Virginia. After finishing the story I was interested to read Grissom's explanation of how she came up with the story and did research to write the novel. 

During the course of the novel, Lavinia grows up from a 7-year-old girl who has lost her whole family and the world she knows to a young woman with a child. She becomes very close to the household staff, and in fact views them all as her family. This book, set in the post-colonial era, clearly demonstrates how few options women of that era had. And African-Americans, obviously, had even fewer. Lavinia benefits from privileges and affection from the master's wife's family, and eventually she is set apart as "Miss Lavinia" instead of the friend, family member, and lowly servant she had previously been.

Unfortunately, this book does resort to stereotypes and one-dimensional characters. The slaves are uniformly  good, while the white men are mostly evil (with the exception of two--Mr. Madden and Will Stevens). Lavinia is so completely obtuse and naive that it's unbelievable. She's the classic perfect white girl heroine in this story, who tries to save everyone in the end (white savior complex, very much like The Help). Another reviewer pointed out the inconsistency of her character. At times she had more guts and gusto, but most of the time she didn't have much energy or independence.


One thing that does not make sense to me is this: how could Lavinia marry Marshall after he violently lashed out at his own sweet sister, causing her death? She was incredibly naive and unrealistic. 

The book reads almost like a soap opera at times--crazy woman with an opium addiction, horrible child abuse, constant rape by the white men of the slave women, hangings, wife batterers, evil overseers, alcoholism, gambling, and incest. It might have been a true depiction of the times, but it seemed a bit over the top altogether. The final, fiery ending was predictable and although there was a bit of redemption at the end, the book was mostly a tragedy...and I felt relieved when I was done with it. 

I enjoyed reading about Lavinia's adventures in Williamsburg with the spirited Meg. Beyond that, all of the story takes place on the plantation. I found myself wondering, "Doesn't Lavinia ever go into town?" Why was there nothing about what else was happening in the country at that time? She didn't have contact with anyone outside of the plantation or Meg and her family in Williamsburg. Perhaps this is normal? It was also difficult to tell when the novel took place; I would have been lost without the dates and might have guessed the mid-1800s. 

The most redeeming aspect of the book was the close relationships Lavinia developed with Mama Mae, Belle, Papa, Uncle Isaac, and the twins. They became family across the color lines, and they retained those bonds and loyalty at the end. Overall, this was a good book, especially for a first novel, but it had its flaws. 

No comments:

Post a Comment