I’m posting this on Canada Day because Kathleen Grissom was born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, even though she now lives in Virginia. The Kitchen House tells the story of Irish orphan Lavinia McCarten whose parents have died on the voyage to the new world and, as they owed Captain Pyke for their passage, he puts Lavinia in the Kitchen House to earn her keep. Belle, Mama Mae, her twins, Beattie and Fanny, Dory, and Papa George become her new family as she learns new ways of life on a Virginia Plantation. The novel has two narrators, Lavinia and Belle, so some events are particular to the narrator —either flashbacks or unwitnessed by the other narrator — and some from a more mature and knowing point of view.
When Lavinia arrives at Tall Oaks she is 6 years old and has no memory. Belle is in charge of the kitchen house and quickly becomes exasperated with Lavinia — who they all call Abinia — because she either won’t eat or throws everything up and doesn’t say ‘boo’. Mama Mae takes things in hand soon Abinia, Beattie, and Fanny are a threesome and Lavinia starts to feel like she has a family. She meets Marshall (11) and Sally (4) from the big house but sees them rarely. Because she starts out as a fairly timid little thing, she often sees things when others don’t see her and she develops an empathy for Marshall who has acquired a loathsome tutor and is subjected to much abuse. The other evil character in the story is the white overseer of the field hands, Rankin, who thinks he has full charge of the big house as well as the fields when the Captain is away. Lady Martha, the captain’s wife, leads a lonely life and becomes dependent on Lavinia and “little black drops” when the captain is gone. She also suspects her husband of having an affair with Belle and transmits her hatred of Belle to Marshall.
This is a well-told, well-researched story of Lavinia’s coming of age and coming to grips with racial hatred, entitlement, sexual harassment, and finding her true place. To some, it may seem a old story told in a different way but to others, it will be fresh and poignant; we may feel we are familiar with the cruelty of slave conditions but it is a shame that should never be forgotten and the ending to this story is a triumph in ways to a new way of life for which many are still waiting. It’s worthwhile reading the bookclub questions and the interview with Kathleen at the back of the book as well as checking out the continuing story of Jamie Pyke in Glory Over Everything. There is also an interesting video by the author talking about her books and research on YouTube. A touching story woven through human adversity and a victory of the human spirit. * * * * *