This week I read a book a bit out of the ordinary for me. The Kitchen House. I say this, not because the book was bad, on the contrary it was quite good, but because it was, on the whole, a book full of tragedy and suffering with very little hope. I’m more of a “happy ending” type person. Or at least a book which leaves me with the warm, content feeling for the characters. So I branched out for the sake of my book club.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is the story of Lavinia, a white indentured servant who was orphaned on her way from Ireland to America, and Belle, the black slave in charge of the Kitchen House who was forced to look after her.
The book begins in 1791 (with an intriguing prologue set in 1810) with seven-year-old Lavinia and her arrival with Captain Pyke to his farm. The book continues to tell the story of Lavinia and her struggle to fit into the world she has been thrown into. Eventually, as Lavinia grows into a young women she is forced to straddle two very different worlds: the world where Belle lives, that of the Kitchen House and “family” she has formed among Mama Mae, Papa George, Belle, and many servants, and the world of the Big House, which include the troubled son of Captain Pyke, Marshall.
What makes this book a tragedy, is the fact that for Lavinia and Belle things ; seem to never go right. Lavinia has this naivety about her which is adorable when she was a child, but which causes her to make some very wrong assumption and some very bad decision once she is a young adult. One such bad decision is the decision which sparks the climax of the story (and the prologue) and leaves all the character’s affected in a way in which they will never be the same.
When Lavinia is thirteen, she leaves the Kitchen House and those she now calls family, with Mr. Madden, Captain Pyke’s brother-in-law, and his family. For the next couple of years Lavinia stays in Williamsburg, yet she starts to miss the Kitchen House and her family. So, when Marshall offers her marriage while she is homesick and heartsick she immediately accepts, thinking that she will go back to her home and her family. What Lavinia, in her naivety doesn’t realize is that she is now the wife of the Big House owner and her life with her former family can no longer be.
And things from there really do not get much better for her. Marshall shows his true colors as a mean drunk almost as soon as they are married, and the man she truly loves, Will she cannot have (this is also due to some very naïve, bad assumptions on her part when she was a young girl). So, to rid herself of all her depression she becomes addicted to opium drops.
And that my friends is the tragedy of The Kitchen House. Lavinia loves the people who have accepted her and become her family, yet when decisions are made she is lead by her loyalty and naivety which lead to unfortunate circumstances, such as marrying Marshall and believing things would be the same between her and the black slaves.
The light at the end of the tunnel? While the book is wrought with suffering and tragedy, it does end on a note of hope. After the climax, which results in the death of a beloved person and the death of a not so beloved person, there does seem to be an air of hope. Lavinia has quit her opium addiction, she is free of Marshall, and Lavinia is reunited with most of her family.
In my happy ending world, that is my favorite part of the book.
END OF SPOILER
While the content of the story isn’t my usual cup of tea, the writing of Kathleen Grissom is absolutely stunning. She paints such an amazing picture of the time and place that the reader feels as if he or she is right along with the Lavinia and Belle in their story.
This is truly a book that is worth the read, even if it isn’t your cup of tea either. The story of family, love, loyalty, suffering and tragedy is truly sad and amazing at the same time and will leave you thinking.
Question of the Day
Have you read The Kitchen House? If so, did you like it? If not, does is sound like a book you would read?