The Kitchen House

I’m having trouble processing this book.

On the one hand, Kathleen Grissom found the raw materials for a rich and powerful historical novel, with the perfect illustration of white privilege over black, even in the most extreme of conditions. It’s an interesting angle—an orphaned Irish child whose parents died owing the ship’s master for their passage is taken and put to work among the slaves on his tobacco plantation, in order to pay off their debt. We get to see by turns the lack of color and class perception on her part, as a naive and frightened seven-year-old who embraces the people around her first as refuge and then as family without understanding status or life situation, versus the total privilege that even a juvenile white indentured servant would be granted above the rights of the adult slaves with whom she lives.

Unfortunately, although the writing is good (if a little repetitive), with several narrative voices meant to showcase the story from all sides, the story quickly slips into stereotype and melodrama. The most genuine part of the book is the voice of the child Lavinia, while the contrapuntal voice of the slave, Belle, who is given initial charge of the young intruder, seems put there simply to fill in background information of which Lavinia wouldn’t be aware—a big flaw in the flow of the narrative. There is a level of personality that doesn’t sufficiently emerge to make Belle a truly compelling character, especially as she mostly disappears from the story in the latter half and only snippets of her thoughts are shared from that point on.

Then, although many (many!) tragic and shocking events take place, the author never seems to get past what is happening to the characters externally. Even though there is some reflection by Lavinia, because she is a child for the first part of the book none of it reflects the truly horrific plot points in any in-depth emotional or philosophical way. It’s observational rather than analytical, and after a while all the bad things become repetitive and predictable, making the reading a slog to get through them and out the other side.

Another big issue I had with the book is the herding of characters into stereotypical positions—inept, passive, hysterical white women; evil, abusive, or at best oblivious and officious white men; black women whose focus is to be mothering; black men who are either pacifist and ineffectual or rebellious and dead; and although some of these stereotypes were assuredly true, this writer presents them all as extreme cases that don’t allow for alternate behavior.

Ultimately, for me there was too much sequential telling about too many events with little reflection or nuance, and it turned into a horror show to be endured while hoping for a happy ending, which of course isn’t going to be there in a book about slavery! So while the details held my attention enough that I finished the book, and it discussed well-illustrated examples of events that typically took place in the antebellum South, I don’t think I could recommend it sheerly as a story, which is a shame, given the themes that could have been developed to better advantage.

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