Saturday, December 29, 2012

312 (2012 #57). The Kitchen House

by Kathleen Grissom

This was one of those books we normally don't read in my local book club - one that a member heard was good, but actually hasn't read herself.  Because it had come up as a possibility (over two years ago), I grabbed a used (former library) copy of it (for fifty cents) at my local Friends of the Library book sale.  We finally read and discussed it last month.

The premise of the book is intriguing.  Lavinia is six years old in 1791, when her parents die on the passage from Ireland to America.  The ship's captain brings her home to his tobacco plantation in Virginia as an indentured servant.  She is placed in "the kitchen house" with Belle, the Captain's illegitimate daughter, hated by the unknowing opium-addict wife of the Captain, who thinks Belle is his mistress.

The story covers the next 19 years, and just about everything awful that could happen does:  rape, incest, murder, pedophilia, spousal abuse, adultery.  Very melodramatic and depressing, and at times it felt like I was reading a gothic bodice-ripper.  Moreover, this debut author tells us what is happening, rather than showing us through action or dialogue. 

The story is told by two narrators, Lavinia and Belle.  The teenage and young adult Lavinia is so clueless that it got to the point where I didn't care what happened to her.  Belle's viewpoint is a little more interesting, if only because she isn't as stupid as Lavinia.

Based on her end note and interviews, the author apparently did some research on the era, but I'm not expert enough to vouch for its authenticity.  She did read two books of slave narratives that helped her develop the dialect used by the slaves in the book (which she toned down to make it more readable).

Grissom says she was inspired by an old map she found while renovating a plantation tavern, and envisioned the prologue to a book.  I'm a little leery of authors who, when asked about souls and "residents of the past," say, "Not only do I feel I was guided but also that I was gifted with their trust."

Some reviews have compared the book to The Help or Gone With the Wind.  Trust me, it's neither.  This is not a book I am likely to re-read.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[My copy of this book was purchased and it will be donated.]

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