It bothered me I hadn’t heard of this powerful novel set in my state, Virginia. I wondered if its timing was overshadowed by THE HELP, but that blockbuster came out a year earlier. Very different stories of racial injustices in the South, but you’d think THE KITCHEN HOUSE would have garnered attention once readers showed how much they cared about civil rights. So, I did a little Googling and learned it took 2 ½ years for this historical novel to get traction, through word-of-mouth spread.
Indentured Servitude, Slavery, and the Price of Freedom (Virginia tobacco plantation, 1791 to 1810): If only THE KITCHEN HOUSE were pure fiction. If only the racial horrors, abuses, and inequalities were the product of the author’s vivid imagination, rather than stirred by stark antebellum South truths. It’s a testament to Kathleen Grissom’s storytelling and authentic dialogue – told through two distinct female voices – that what happens on her imaginary plantation, Tall Oaks, feels so real it might have taken place at one of the best preserved plantations in Virginia: Prestwould. Built by slaves during the same historical time period as the novel, the author did some of her research here. Grissom, who renovated a Virginia plantation property, clearly felt history come alive, as you will too.
From the Prologue, you’re prepared for an “unspeakable” tragedy. And while you should prepare for plenty more heart wrenching calamities, there’s also courage, dignity, and love that buoys you.
First, though, you’ll want to wrap yourself around a who’s who of characters for this story is peopled by a large cast. Backgrounds, race, class, and family loyalties matter greatly, impacted by whether they’re members of the “kitchen house” or the “big house” or toil in the tobacco fields, thus live in slave quarters. Here’s a rundown of key people at Tall Oaks:
LAVINIA McCARTEN: The white, female, more educated voice. An indentured servant who will eventually be granted freedom when she comes of age. At 7, she arrives ill and disoriented, having lost her Irish family. It’s historically fitting that she comes to Virginia, the first state to institute the harsh labor practice of indenture. Brought over by ship by the plantation owner, Lavinia looks as you might expect: pale, thin, freckled, red hair, and as gentle and amiable as can be. Her room, board, and labor is at the “kitchen house” where she quickly becomes attached to the wise matron, Mama Mae, a slave whose status is elevated working here but she’s still property with no hope for freedom. By 12, Lavinia is beginning to understand the “line drawn between black and white.” Her “lonely heart,” her “singing heart,” tell her not to “want to be the white girl.”
BELLE: The bi-racial, second narrator, whose uneducated voice is in a dialect that flows and moves us. She’s so light skinned she could pass for white. That’s because her father is the plantation master; her mother, an unknown slave. Since she’s the captain’s daughter, she’s at the main house, but the captain’s wife does not know her genetics, believes she’s her husband’s mistress. Belle’s mixed heritage complicates other lives too. She loves Mama Mae’s son, Ben, which, of course, is unacceptable. They hide their love, fear their lives. At 18, she doesn’t want her promised freedom, for she can’t bear to lose Ben. She’s one of the characters whose “gotten hurt enough in this life.”
CAPTAIN JAMES PYKE: Married at 40, at sea for months on end, driving his jealous, extremely lonely wife to depression and madness, for she sees that Belle is “one of the captain’s most prized possessions.” He may be kindly but he feels unknowable, owing to his constant, lengthy absences.
MISS MARTHA: When she married at 20 her “vibrant nature” was considered well-suited to her “adventuresome” husband, but sadly she’s anything but. As the weakest, languishing character, we empathize with her feelings of abandonment and great losses. Her survival depends on opium. She adores her young daughter, Sally; not the case with her son, Marshall, for reasons that become painfully clear. Belle may be responsible for her care, but it’s Lavinia she bonds with.
MAMA MAE AND HER FAMILY: We understand why Lavinia loves Mama Mae. You will too. She’s brave, spiritual, devoted to her family, endearing. She may “act like I don’t have no mind of my own, except how to make everybody in the house happy. That because I mean to stay up here.” Papa George, her husband, has a heart of gold too. They have twin girls: Fanny, the “plain one,” and Beattie “destined to be a beauty.” They instantly became Lavinia’s playmates, as they’re all close in age. Ben, their 18-year-old son, knows his place as a slave despite his enduring affection for Belle, so he also gets involved with a slave, Lucy. For too many sorrowful reasons, his “big old eyes fill up and run over until it looks like there’s a bucket of water coming down his face.” Dora is their oldest daughter, tending to a sick baby Henry; the father, Jimmy, a slave working in the fields. Yes, all these relationships are steeped in complications.
WILL STEVENS: A breath of fresh air for his kindnesses, his human decency. Will enters the picture when the Captain realizes he needs someone capable to run his estate while he’s away. As a young girl, Lavinia is infatuated with Will; theirs a charming, teasing relationship. When she matures, he sees she’s a “beautiful young woman who has the heart of a child.”
RANKIN: One of the abusive, hateful characters. Rankin oversees the tobacco farm, an alcoholic, and a dangerous influence on Miss Martha’s son, Marshall.
UNCLE JACOB: A calming, spiritual presence. He’s the least known except for references to his African tribe, Foulah, and Islamic religion. Presumably, these differences account for why he lives alone in a cabin on (or near?) the plantation.
MR. WATERS: Marshall’s tutor, out for no good. Perhaps the root of Marshall’s abusiveness?
While there are more characters in this sprawling novel as the years pass, telling about them would spoil the reading.
While often “everybody’s full of nerves,” not all is always bleak. Home cooking runs deliciously throughout, reminding us of the goodness of families, summer southern days, and regional recipes of biscuits, corn bread, peach preserves, pickled cucumbers, and strawberry jam pound cake. Periodic references to the estate’s “blue room,” bring forth a peaceful oasis bedecked with books.
Of Ben it’s asked: “What gave him this courage?” I wondered the same of the author. For this is a brave novel, debut or not, that digs painfully deep into racial hatred. At times, Grissom says in her thoughtful Author’s Note, she was drained by the writing. But I think the reader is strengthened by the courageous voices who come through to us with a loud, very important message: We must never forget all the Mama Maes, who graced us with their woefully understated words: “Times, this life not easy.”