March Selection – “The Kitchen House” by Kathleen Grissom
During March, Zion’s readers delved into a troubled time in our nation’s history as Southern agriculture depended on slaves who were bought, sold, and often treated in heinous ways. Into that world comes a young Irish girl who lost her parents, indentured servants, during the Atlantic voyage and was forcibly separated from her only brother upon landing. Severely traumatized by these events, she is thrust into the colored community on the ship owner’s plantation and must make a place for herself. How she accomplishes this, the relationships she develops, the gradual recognition that she straddles two worlds, and the consequences of her choices make for a gripping novel.
Indentured servitude as a way to emigrate had fallen under the radar for most of Zion’s readers so this was an intriguing reminder of the lengths to which people went in order to have opportunity for improvement. It involved an uncompensated commitment of three to five years with the employer providing food, clothing, and shelter and thus had some similarity to slave labor except that an end was in sight. This was but one historical item of interest. Ms. Grissom’s depictions of the slave quarters, contrasting living conditions in the big house, descriptions of mouthwatering food, and development of her characters all showed the extensive research the author did while writing this book.
The story is told through the eyes of Irish Lavinia and the slave Belle, who was actually the colored daughter of the plantation owner. Horrors abound as the book opens with a lynching scene and then backtracks to cover the years that led up to it. Ms. Grissom weaves graphic descriptions of abuse, both physical and mental, throughout the novel, and the readers became accustomed to them as the commonplace occurrences which they were during that time. Although well drawn, some of her characters were frustrating for Zion’s readers, especially Lavinia who had never learned to be assertive. Could it be that we readers did not grasp the extent to which Lavinia was robbed of a sense of self at the tender age of 7? Or have we come to expect women to be independent and self-confident and so have difficulty with those who are not?
The ability of the slaves to function in such an uncertain atmosphere where one step wrong could result in beatings and disfigurement was marveled at by our readers, as was the sense of entitlement by most of the white men to the bodies of the colored women. Human nature at its worst was on display with at least one of the characters reminding the readers of an individual in the headlines today. Perhaps another frustrating aspect of the book was the painting of most of the characters as only good or only bad by the author. The sheer number of characters was also daunting. Indeed, the relationships and the children that issued from them were difficult to keep straight, and the sharing of one slave man by two slave women caused some amusement among our readers.
Often, some custom or action reminded us of another book. Calling a slave marriage “jumping the broom” brought back echoes of the novel “Roots” while the downcast eyes and timid mannerisms of the house slaves were similar to those in “The Help”. The reluctance among the slaves to leave the plantation after abusive treatment was contrasted with an incarcerated gentleman known to one of the readers who dreaded leaving the confines of jail – there is a certain security and safety in a known place no matter what the conditions.
All in all, Zion’s readers felt “The Kitchen House” was a very good read and a real page turner that kept our interest. When a vote was taken, it received six 2-thumbs-up votes, and four 1-thumb-up votes. No one could remain neutral about this rendition of striving against the bonds of physical and emotional slavery, and the club would recommend it to all readers in general and those who enjoy historical perspectives in particular.