Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Lavinia is only seven years old when she is orphaned while on a ship sailing from Ireland to America. Sold into indentured servitude to a family who owns a plantation, Lavinia arrives and is immediately whisked away to the kitchen house of the property, where she will be raised by the African-American house slaves. As Lavinia grows up surrounded by and secure with her new surrogate family, she becomes enmeshed in their everyday lives and the difficulties that they have with the cruel overseer of the property, learning also to work in the big house and provide for the Captain and his family. But Lavinia's future takes a dramatic turn when the Captain and his wife fall ill with the yellow fever and Lavinia is soon living a more upper crust existence in Williamsburg. Gaining an education and social graces in Williamsburg, she makes an unexpected and advantageous marriage and soon finds herself back at the plantation, albeit in a very different role than in years past. In her new life, Lavinia finds herself constantly at odds over what is expected of her and what is expected of the people that she once called family. Both haunting and provocative, The Kitchen House tells the heartbreaking story a girl's life lived on both sides of the divide between slavery and freedom.
I haven't read many books about slavery in America. I think it's probably because it's really hard to get over the feelings of shame that I have that a situation like this existed in my own country in times that are not that far removed. It's painful for me to read and hear about slavery and its trappings and I often wonder when coming across books like this just what the ancestors of this great land were thinking in their practice of slavery. Though this book dealt with a very dark and malevolent period of American history, I found it fascinating, well written and sadly beautiful.
I think one of the main thrusts of this story was the differences between the indenture of white servants and the slavery of Black Americans. Though both were expected to do hard labor for their respective masters, there was a world of difference in the way they were treated and in the fact that the indentured whites were at some point able to return to freedom. This was never the case for the slaves. They were owned by their masters for their entire lives, sometimes traded and sold to pay debts, and only in special circumstances were they ever given the papers that would grant them freedom. These differences were ones that Lavinia struggled with almost on a daily basis, and although there was an undeniable love between her and her adopted family, these differences were hard for her to understand. Only Lavinia, out of all the servants, was able to pass time with the lady of the house and learn to read. Later in the book these differences became more pronounced and painful for Lavinia to bear.
The book puts forth a whole bevy of information about slavery. From the master's sexual cavorting with the women to the horrible starvation and beatings that the slaves endured at their master's hand, these sections were painful to read but also imbued the book with a piercing clarity and hubris. Grissom certainly doesn't shy away from uncovering all the gruesomeness that slavery entails and gives her characters room to muse on the unfairness and unhappiness of their lives, along with their simple joys. The chapters alternate between those in Lavinia's voice and those in the voice of Belle, a young African-American slave who is entrusted with Lavinia's care when she arrives at the plantation. Through the use of this shared narrative, the fullness of the story is magnified and both the story of the slaves and Lavinia's story are told with a great feeling of well rounded depth. There were times when the agony on the pages reached out and squeezed my heart and it was all I could do not to break down and weep with the unfairness and pain that the characters faced. The fear and sadness in the story were palpable but at times the narrative moved towards tenderness and beauty, particularly in the sections where Lavinia bonds and shares with her new family.
It's hard to put into words the beauty and power of this book. It's a tale that screams violence and unfairness, but also love, hope and redemption. It's full of bitterness and cruelty, but peeking between all of that there is love, respect and dignity. There were some truly horrible and evil characters within its pages, yet there were also characters who were gentle, loving and humble. The story was one of juxtapositions and contrasts, evil and generosity, hopelessness and hope. One thing I really admired about Grissom's writing was the understated elegance of her prose. It wasn't flashy or over-adorned but it carried a quiet beauty and power that I found irresistible. Once I picked this book up, I couldn't put it down, for the life of Lavinia and her family had me entranced.
Though this was a painful read at times, it was also delicate and touching. There was so much in the book to fall in love with and admire, and at its foundations, it's a story that needs to be told and heard. I could just go on and on about the haunting and lovely qualities of this book but instead I will just say that I truly loved it and that it's one that every reader should take a look at. Questions of conscience and responsibility are asked and answered, and the full impact of slavery and indentured servitude are laid out for all to see. The characters are easily some of the most unforgettable that I have come across and I quickly found myself caught up in their difficult plights. I was sad to see the book end but was very excited to hear that Grissom might be planning a sequel and I know I will definitely be reading it when it hits the shelf! A gorgeous and generous read, highly recommended!
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Posted by Zibilee at 8:00 AM