An Antebellum Story of Life and Tragedy on a Virginia Plantation
The story of “The Kitchen House” unfolds through the eyes of two narrators. The first are Lavinia’s. She’s a red-haired, Irish child of 7 years old who becomes an orphan when her parents die on a ship sailing to America. Lavinia is brought to a Virginia plantation as an indentured servant by the ship’s captain and the owner of the plantation.
The second narrator is Belle, a half-white slave and the illegitimate daughter of the captain. Belle is in charge of the kitchen at the big house. Lavinia is given to Belle, who is instructed to teach Lavinia how to work in the kitchen. We shadow them through several decades.
Ina Lidsky, who stepped in last minute to facilitate for the Villages Bookworm Club, amazed us with the amount of research she did in such a short time. She started the discussion with a character study of the many personalities in the story. As the noise in the meeting room escalated, it was obvious the discussion groups had a quite a bit to say about the characters and their roles in the novel. Several members said they needed to make a list to keep track of the characters.
Most members thought the addition of a third narrator in the voice of Mama Mae, the matriarch of the slaves, would have been a welcome addition. They wanted to hear more in her voice.
Members felt the prevailing aspects of the book were the use of power and manipulation to control people, whites as well as blacks. They also commented on the number of secrets kept by the various players, along with their feelings of guilt, solitude and loss.
Discussion followed about the casual use and abuse of laudanum, the highly addictive opium derivative, used by the captain’s wife. It was noted laudanum was widely used in those times as a cure-all for a variety of ailments, including “women’s issues,” as a cough suppressant and for the relief of colic in babies.
All but a few of the 50 members loved the book and praised the author for her buildup to the conclusion. But several members were disappointed in the ending and felt it was too tidy. An overwhelming majority felt this is an engrossing and gripping novel that gives an accurate insight into the running of a large plantation in the early 19th century, in addition to a hard look at the plight of indentured servants.
About the Author
Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, Kathleen Grissom fell in love with books at an early age. She was so influenced by the books she read that she often assumed aspects of the characters. Grissom earned a nursing degree and worked on staff at a hospital in Montreal. After a divorce and remarriage, she worked as an ad executive in Manhattan. She continued to read, write and take classes in creative writing. Grissom and her husband moved to a 27-acre farm in rural Virginia. She discovered an old map with the notation, “Negro Hill,” and that became the catalyst for “The Kitchen House.” She set everything aside to research and write the novel. She is presently writing the true-life story of Mary, a 16-year-old member of the Crow tribe given in marriage to a fur trader.