Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Kitchen House

Author: Kathleen Grissom
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: Paperback
Pages: 365
First Published: February 2010
First Line: "1810 - Lavinia "There was a strong smell of smoke, and new fear fueled me."

Synopsis:  On the journey from Ireland to America a young Irish couple dies leaving their young son and daughter orphaned and unable to pay for their passage.  When the ship arrives in America, the captain of the ship, James Pyke, easily sells off the boy but is left with the very sickly 7 year old Lavinia.  With no other options, Captain Pyke decides to bring her to his plantation as an indentured servant where he places her in the care of his slave Belle so she can be used as a servant in the kitchen house.

Lavinia is nursed back to health by Belle, Mama Mae and the other slaves.  Even with the differences in her skin colour, it doesn't take long before Lavinia, who fondly becomes referred to as Abinia by the slaves, is accepted into her new 'family'.  While Lavinia creates relationships and bonds with her slave family she also becomes more and more accepted into the 'Big House'.   As the years pass she finds herself dangerously straddling both worlds.  She feels a loyalty and appreciation for her master's family yet has a deep love for her adoptive slave family.  She soon learns that the decisions she makes can have dire consequences for the people she loves.
My Thoughts:  I have always been drawn to books about slavery and the Holocaust.  I suppose that reading about times where people endured, suffered and yet (some) still managed to survive is such a raw look at the human condition and what we can survive.  As well as, sadly, what we can do to each other.

The books that I've read that focused on slavery in the USA were always told from the viewpoint of the black slave.  What intrigued me about this book is the fact that the story is told from the point of view of a female black slave but also through the eyes of a white indentured servant.  I had heard of indentured slaves but honestly didn't equate it with the slave trade in the USA. 

After reading this book, I now know that this book is much more than a book about slavery.  Yes, it's sometimes eye opening and brutal in its descriptions of slavery.  But Grissom also delves into  the different kinds of oppression -- like the powerlessness of women of all colours.  She also shows the differences between a family who appears to have everything (money, freedom, power)  except tight bonds with each other and a slave family with nothing except each other.
One of the things that stands out for me in this book is the author's voice.  Her writing style is very easy to read and is done so well it feels effortless.  Her descriptions of life back in the 18th century feel so authentic and vivid (yet not verbose) that you know that Ms Grissom did her research on that era.
I think it's because of Grissom's skill at creating such vivid and honestly portrayed characters that she evoked so many different emotions from me.  From characters I hated because they were truly sinister and horrid, to the unconditional love from Mama Mae, to the suffering Belle endures,  to the sweetness of little Sukey.   These characters were complex and multidimensional and leaped off the page.  It's due to these clearly defined characters that I was able to feel so much for them.  I went through the emotional spectrum -- shocked, saddened, unconditional love, angered, joyful etc. That's a lot of emotions for one book.

I think that one of the things that helped me get to know the characters better was how the author used the point of view of two characters, Belle and Lavinia, in alternating chapters to tell the story.  This technique was executed extremely well and flowed seamlessly.  Not all authors, in my vast reading, are able to pull off a book with two point of views.  Often it takes a bit for me to switch gears when the character changes.  That wasn't an issue here.  Also, seeing a situation from two very different viewpoints gave me a better understanding of just how different life was back for the two groups of people.

While the book does alternate between Belle and Lavinia I'd have to say that the book does focus more on Lavinia and how she adapts to both worlds.  Lavinia's story shows her innocence, naivety and ignorance about how the world around her really works.  It's her decisions which cause a lot of the turmoil as well as some of the happier times in the book. 
I felt Lavinia's confusion and uncertainty as she attempted to straddle both worlds.  The fact that she thought that she could pull it off shows just how naive she truly was.   She was so realistically written -- flaws and all-- that I wanted to just shake some sense into her!   It was her slave family that were much more knowledgeable and pragmatic when it came to understanding the social norms and mores of the time.  Mama Mae tried to teach Lavinia the 'ways' and what her place was among the white owners and black slaves.    Due to her skin colour Lavinia was stuck in between two vastly different worlds and soon finds out that she doesn't necessarily have a choice as to which 'world' she lives in.

While I loved all 365 pages of this book my favourite parts are the beginning and the end.  Normally that doesn't bode well for a book but in this case I disagree.  The book begins with a shocking scene that piqued my curiosity and set the book off with a very anxious and ominous tone.  That opening situation is made clear by the end of the book when the author throws in a twist that literally had me suck in my breath (I believe I even muttered out loud "No!!" when I read it).  I then proceeded to re-read the prologue and the end again just to verify what I had read.  You've gotta love a book that grabs you from the start and doesn't let go!
Note: Once you're done reading The Kitchen House make sure you read the author's note at the back of the book.  It  gave me goosebumps as I read how the concept of the book came to the author.  I love to read about how an idea for a book made it onto the pages of a book. 

If you haven't guessed by now I adored this book.  It's a book filled with love, human endurance, violence, betrayal, family loyalty, courage, strength, trust and the power of unconditional love and hope.  That's a whole lot of feelings for one book but the author pulls it off and leaves the reader thinking of the characters long after the last page is turned.  This is truly an inspiring read and I highly recommend it.
Other books fans of "The Kitchen House" may enjoy:

The Book of Negroes (by Canadian author Lawrence Hill)
Roots (Alex Haley)

My Rating: 5/5 stars

P.S.  I'm hoping that there will be a sequel to The Kitchen House so I can know what happened to the characters!!


Angela Scott said...

My book club loves historical fiction. We read SOMEONE KNOWS MY NAME, which also a historical book about slavery and the group enjoyed it. This ones sounds great. I will have to recommend it for this year's reading list. Thanks for the review.

Laurie@The Baking Bookworm said...

Angela -- "Someone Knows My Name" is the title used in the USA for "The Book of Negroes" by Canadian author Lawrence Hill. :) I'm not sure why certain titles are changed in the States (makes it confusing, I think). I agree that it was an amazing read! Have you read "Roots" by Alex Haley yet? One of my all-time favourite books. Now I want to watch the mini series that aired back in the 80's (???).

Jackie @ Domestic Fits said...

I was JUST thinking that I need a new book. Thanks for the recommendation. Reminds me a little of Angela's Ashes.

TheBookGirl said...

Great review Laurie. I'm not sure how I missed this one, since I love reading good historical fiction and it sounds like this is that and more. I am also curious now to find out the inspiration for the book.

I see that you are reading House rules now. I'll be interested to see what you think of it. I thought that the way she voiced the character of the autistic teenager was amazing...

Laurie@The Baking Bookworm said...

Jackie -- I highly recommend this book. I honestly can't remember much from Angela's Ashes (except that I found it very sad) so I can't tell you if this book is similar to McCourt's novel.

BookGirl -- I can't remember where I heard about this book. It may have just been a recommendation from Good Reads or someone mentioning it on Twitter. :)

I'm really enjoying House Rules. I think Picoult has done a great job getting inside the head of a child with Asperger's. I know that I've learned a lot about this syndrome just reading this book. I'm about 2/3 through right now. Have you reviewed it?

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