Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen HouseThe Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I glanced through a few of the reviews of The Kitchen House before writing my own. It seems the people who liked the book felt it was a well researched picture of the lives of slaves on a Virginia plantation in the late 18th century. The people who didn't like the book felt too many horrible things happened to the characters, making it a difficult read. It seems to me to achieve the former the latter has to be true. I put the book down a number of times when the story got too depressing, but in the end I was glad I read it.

The story is about an Irish immigrant who lost her parents and ended up as a indentured servant raised by slaves in the kitchen house of a plantation. It is also about the lives of those slaves. Although Lavinia is the principal character, the story often switches to the point of view of Belle, the illegitimate daughter of the Captain (the plantation owner).  Belle's mother was a slave the Captain found beautiful enough to purchase and “use.” Later on Belle was “used” by Marshall, the son of the Captain and Belle's own half brother.

Lavinia was one of the weakest main characters I've ever encountered. I know life was also difficult for the white women of that time, especially those who made poor choices with their men. But there are so many ways Lavinia could have acted to prevent some of the tragedies from occurring. When she did try she gave up too soon. Some of the other characters in the book referred to her as naïve, but her weakness went way beyond that. Most of her choices were painful to read.

What I liked best about the book was the Upstairs Downstairs picture of life on the plantation. I knew the slaves in the big house had it better than the slaves in the fields, but I'd never thought about the middle tier, in the kitchen house. And what was also interesting was the hardships endured by slaves who had fair owners. They had family and friends on other plantations, they were treated horribly by other whites in the community, and they were still property, even if their owners were good people.

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