Friday, September 14, 2012

A Review of Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House

By Kim

Synopsis (from the book jacket):

Orphaned during her passage from Ireland, young, white Lavinia arrives on the steps of the kitchen house and is placed, as an indentured servant, under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate slave daughter. Lavinia learns to cook, clean, and serve food, while guided by the quiet strength and love of her new family.

In time, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, caring for the master’s opium-addicted wife and befriending his dangerous yet protective son. She attempts to straddle the worlds of the kitchen and big house, but her skin color will forever set her apart from Belle and the other slaves.

Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Kathleen Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds.

About Kathleen Grissom (from Simon & Schuster’s website):

Kathleen Grissom was born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, and is now happily rooted in south-side Virginia, where she and her husband live in the plantation tavern they renovated. The Kitchen House is her first novel.


I happened upon this novel at a bookstore a few weeks ago and bought it based on nothing but the quote on the cover where Alice Walker said, “This novel, like The Help, does important work.”

We live in a time where preconceived notions of race and family are blurred. Though The Kitchen House is set two centuries in the past, Grissom shows characters struggling with the very same issues. Lavinia is white, yet, for all intents and purposes, a slave. Belle is the illegitimate daughter of the master, seemingly his favorite child, yet her skin color bars her from being accepted in the big house, much less in society. Both young women are trapped between two worlds into which they can never fully fit. Both are raised by families that aren’t their own and from whom they are forced to separate. Both are victims of the same shattered man. I desperately wanted to hate that man, but Grissom gave me just enough insight into his childhood to keep one sliver of my sympathy alive.

The prose is gorgeous, the characters complex, and the story engrossing. It does, as Alice Walker said, “important work.”

Have you read The Kitchen House? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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