It was hard for me to realize that THE KITCHEN HOUSE by Kathleen Grissom had been out for a year earlier this month when I started seeing it all over the blogs and Twitter. It grabbed my attention right away since I love stories of the South during this time period leading up to the Civil War. Most of the story takes place in Virginia on a tobacco plantation in Virginia called Tall Oaks. It spans a generation and is told in alternating chapters by the two main characters. Lavinia was only seven years old when her parents died while on a ship from Ireland traveling to America. Now an orphan, Captain James Pyke, the owner of the ship and Tall Oaks takes Lavinia as an indentured servant. She is handed over to the slaves in the kitchen house and it is there that she is raised. The other narrator is Belle, a young slave who runs the kitchen house and is given the responsibility of raising Lavinia. Belle is uneasy at first, but eventually settles into the unusual role. Without any spoilers to give the plot away, here is a synopsis of THE KITCHEN HOUSE found on Goodreads...
When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family.
Orphaned while onboard ship from Ireland, seven-year-old Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master's illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family, though she is set apart from them by her white skin.
Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare, and lives are put at risk.
When I first heard the narrators voices when deciding to download this audio book, I knew right away I would enjoy listening to this story. Orlagh Cassidy (Lavinia) and Bahni Turpin (Belle) do equally impressive interpretations of these two strong characters. In my opinion, having the right narration can make or break an audio book.
I found the story of THE KITCHEN HOUSE perfectly paced and although Grissom doesn't rely on actual historical detail of the times, you get a real sense of what life must have been like growing up as a slave and being completely dependent on the slave owner. She concentrates more on the relationships of the people, both white and black. This is a story about family, loyalty and sacrifice that is realistic and heartbreaking.
Through the voices of Belle and Lavinia, I could picture the events playing out in my mind so vividly that I can say I've never enjoyed an audio more. All of the characters are authentic, as is the writing style for that time period. Grissom paints a beautiful lansdscape for the telling of this family's story. It may sound strange to use the term 'family' considering they are slaves but underneath the legalities of their ownership, there is a sense of family that weaves these two groups of people together over many years through tragedy and celebration. It is well written and worth reading. It is, in fact, one of my favorites so far this year. I would definitely recommend it.
Author: Kathleen Grissom
Published: February 2010