It is rare that a book so captures a time and place that you are transported there – not really knowing whether it is “true” (because it is impossible to go back in time) but knowing that, despite the label of ‘novel’ it is real.
The Kitchen House is a dual narrative that transports you to southern Virginia in the late 1700s; to a place where black slaves and white indentured servants live side by side, their work indistinguishable and yet the color of their skin separating them into worlds unfathomable from our current, distant view.
Lavinia is orphaned on the ship that brings her family to America. She travels bound — not in physical chains like many of the enslaved people endured, but by the chain of indentured servitude. Her Irish lilt and freckled nose distinguish her from the other kitchen and “big house” workers, but her job as servant to the Captain (as the plantation owner is called) is no different. She begins her story with little memory of what came before, so her history becomes rooted in the family of the enslaved that she works beside.
Belle has been enslaved, but her white father and adoring grandmother ensure that she learns to read and is “given her papers” – to ensure that she will be allowed to live free. And yet, despite such advantages, the sorrows she endures limit her options.
The choices that Lavinia and Belle make – to stay, to leave, to return – are the core of the narrative, and yet their decisions are doled out like breadcrumbs along the footpath in the woods; we know they will lead to tragedy but Grissom keeps us guessing about how and where and when.
There is a deep sadness in this book, and because the characters are so deeply etched, it is palpable. The everyday joys they celebrate and the decency –and depth — of their character makes The Kitchen House something more than just a sad commentary on a tragic history. It brings the reality – the very harsh reality – of life on a Southern plantation an authenticity that is too often missing from white attempts to capture the experience of slaves. I don’t – probably can’t – know how accurate this rendition of life on a pre-Civil War plantation is, but the story it tells has an authenticity that feels real.