I’m fairly picky about the historical fiction I read, but as soon as I read the plot of The Kitchen House, I added it to my to-read list.
The novel begins in 1793, when Lavinia is a seven-year-old Irish immigrant whose parents have just died on the passage to Virginia. Too sick to sell, Captain James Pyke had no other choice but to indenture her, and send her to live and work in the kitchen house with his slave and illegitimate daughter, Belle. Because Belle is weary of the child at first, most of Lavinia’s care during the first few months comes from Mama Mae, a slave who works in the big house, and they form a close bond. Among the others who become her family are Papa George, Mama’s husband; Beattie and Fanny, their twin daughters; and Ben, their son. What unfolds over the following 17 years is Lavinia’s struggle to understand the world in which she lives, and her own place within it. Those she is closest to are almost all slaves, but over time she finds herself drawn to the advantages of white society, as well. Belle is forced into a similar struggle, being half-white with a father who wants her to be free, but not wanting to leave the only home she has ever known.
I really enjoyed this book a lot. It had been a long time since I read historical fiction set during this time period, and I really liked that Grissom tackled both slavery and immigration, because it offered a unique perspective for an institution that was so common in the region. Had Lavinia been an American child, I’m not sure her observations would have been as guileless as they were.
The book was a little slower around the middle, but all of the main characters, especially Lavinia, are fully developed, and those sections were necessary to understand their actions and reactions later in the book (particularly with the Captain’s son, Marshall). Most of the story is told from Lavinia’s point of view, although Belle narrates every other chapter. At first I thought this technique was unnecessary, since Belle’s chapters are much shorter and Lavinia is a pretty observant narrator herself, but it brought more to the story when the two characters were in separate places, and when Lavinia had misunderstood a crucial event. In the end, it was smart that the author had used this format from the beginning, instead of introducing it partway through.
One thing that impressed me was the amount of research that must have been done. Grissom’s depictions of slave life and the relationships among the master, overseer, and slave were particularly well-documented. The Captain is not cruel, but he leaves the authority over most of his slaves to a man, Mr. Rankin, who most certainly is. His actions are really the crux of the narrative, shaping nearly every outcome in one way or another.
Another reason this was a fascinating read for me, personally, is that I love genealogy, and am descended from a man named William Barnhill, who was the son of a slave and (probably) her owner. I wonder how his situation compared to Belle’s, even though he was born in Pennsylvania and she in Virginia. William was given his freedom in 1796, just before he turned nine years old, and he spent most of his life in Ohio. His family is listed as “mulatto” on censuses for multiple generations.
Definitely read this if you like character-driven novels or historical fiction. However, as is often the case with novels of this subject matter, be aware that there are some uncomfortable events to read about, though the language during these scenes generally isn’t too descriptive.