Review: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Publication Date: January 1, 2010

Synopsis:
Lavinia is an indentured slave, brought to Twin Oaks after her parents died on the boat ride to America. On the plantation, she’s taught to live a life with the slaves, raised by a tight-knit family under the watchful eye of Mama Mae. The biggest difference? Lavinia isn’t a slave like the rest of them and can have a life far beyond her imagination.

Belle is a slave on the Twin Oaks plantation. Beautiful, smart, and given favor by her master, she’s the envy of her master’s wife. Harboring a secret that very few people know of and a deep love for a man she cannot have, Belle finds herself subject to the limitations of being a black slave during the 1800s. When Lavinia comes into her life, she’s tasked with caring for a child who seems to understand nothing about the careful boundaries and grey lines of life on the plantation.

Date Read: April 24, 2019

*2020 DISCLAIMER EDIT* After some serious though, I don’t think I should have given this book 4 stars. I’ve since changed my rating to 2 stars because I think it better reflects my opinion and feelings around the story. Is it mostly subjective because of my lack of enjoyment? Yes. Do I think that the main problem was a static main character? Yes. Would I rate it higher solely from an objective and craft perspective? Maybe, but not by much.

Thoughts:

Ah, the final book for my Intro to American Ethnic Literature class for the semester. I had very mixed feelings about this from the moment it started because it deals with the topic of slavery and indentured servanthood.

The plot spans quite a number of years and delves into the reality of what it was to live as a slave on a plantation. There’s a huge family of characters whose lives we see unfold as the story progresses, from births to deaths. Many of these characters go through their own arcs and come into their own over the course of the story, and there are also frustrating antagonists that made some of my classmates chuck the book into their hallway or plot the murder of a particular character.

This story is told from two POVs, Lavinia’s and Belle’s. Just from the synopsis above, it’s pretty easy to see that they have very different lives and will go through very different struggles within the book. What made things even more interesting was watching them interact, knowing certain things from one character’s POV that the other didn’t know about and how it affected their behavior and the way we saw the story unfold. It also made a huge different knowing that Lavinia, despite her indentured servanthood, was far more privileged because she was white and wasn’t enslaved like the family she was living with on the plantation. The process of watching her grow up and learn about the world made a lot of my classmates question their understanding of race and privilege in circumstances like slavery and indentured servanthood.

A quick break-down if you’re not familiar with the term “indentured slave/servant/servanthood.” This was usually a status given to white people who were crossing the ocean to come to America. If they were unable to pay for something, they would most likely enter into indentured servanthood. In exchange for their work for a period of time, they would get a piece of property and some money when their contract is up. This is a key moment because: they have a contract for a certain amount of time, and it ends. Slavery, on the other hand, was lifelong and didn’t provide any of the benefits that indentured servanthood did. Slaves were treated terribly, forced to work for 16 hours at a time, forced to grow their own food and keep their own living spaces clean, and generally abused for much of their lives. I make this distinction because it’s important to note that the two are not synonymous, they are not similar, and they do not treat people the same way.

Throughout the story, we see how Lavinia and the slave family she lives with interact with not only each other, but the white household they work for. Captain James runs the plantation, though he’s often absent due to his business travels, and his wife is left to watch over the household matters in the meantime. Getting to see the class difference and how it affected each character’s view of race was one of the most intricately woven aspects of this novel.

It’s also interesting to see a lot of what happens through the eyes of a white child who doesn’t understand the realities of skin color and slavery. Lavinia, coming to the plantation as a very young child, has barely any understanding of what it means to be white because she’s raised by a colored family. To be quite honest, I’m not sure how much of it she really understood at the end of the book either. Her view of how things worked and how she fit into the overall social dynamic made her frustrating in many instances, as her naiveté continued into her adolescent and adult years.

Though we’re not given the chance to see through the eyes of 98% of the cast of characters, we do get to hear their voices and opinions as they talked with each other. It was easy to tell them apart because they were so distinct and diverse in opinions, beliefs, and attitude. Hearing them talk to each other was refreshing and often shed a lot of perspective on what plantation life was like.

Now, there’s a reason I didn’t give this a 5 star rating, and it mostly has to do with the lack of resolution that I felt the book had. We’re thrown into many different situations in the book, and many of them don’t have proper or clear resolutions. There’s some closure, but never enough that it feels as if that part of the story is done, and each element often carries over into some character’s life for the rest of the book without being mentioned again or fully dealt with. I suppose that it could be an artistic choice, seeing as we don’t always have full closure or resolution in real life, but I was mostly left feeling like the end to each plot line was loosely wrapped up and could have more finality to it. Many things were left unanswered, which could be the point of the sequel, though I highly doubt it. And instances in which one character knew more than the others, it still wasn’t clear if certain plot lines had been wrapped up or not. So many things were left to the reader’s interpretation, which can be good, but can also be really frustrating.

Because of this, I didn’t enjoy the ending. It felt really rushed to me, and personally, left me feeling very unsatisfied. Yes, the overall plot had been wrapped up, but the lack of character development that I felt from Lavinia and the ending that I thought was too convenient and easily thrown together made it difficult for me to appreciate what many others thought was a good ending. I struggled to find something good in it, and some of my classmates agree with me. And before anyone gets on my case, I do know how hard it is to write an ending. I’ve done it five times and it’s not as easy as everyone thinks. But in this case, things popped up that were too convenient and unrealistic in the setting of the book, and sometimes even went against the normal behavior of a character. I wanted something more satisfying than what I got, and I was disappointed that the book ended the way it did.

Character(s):
Lavinia was incredibly naïve for the majority of the book. There were moments in which she acted her age, but outside of that, she knew very little and assumed a lot. Not only was she childlike into her adult life, she also didn’t have much of a personality or character. Craft-wise, she’s a good example of a static main character written to show the change in others around her, but on the other hand, it made her dull to read about because there was nothing interesting about her. Some people in class argued that she did have character development, however small it was, but I didn’t see it. To me, she remained a child who refused to open her eyes and see what was really going on in front of her.

Belle was much more interesting to read about, as her bluntness made life around the plantation more realistic and refreshing. Being one of the many characters who had secrets, it was interesting to see how much she revealed of other people’s secrets in the process. The contrast between her and Lavinia was clear in many ways and gave us a better idea of how things actually operated on the plantation.

The family that Lavinia was raised in were all wonderful in their own ways. Each character was so vivid and fleshed out, they almost made it more bearable to read about the life they struggled through. They were honest about what life was like, but also knew how to find pleasure in the small things in life. All of them added something to the plot and showed us how strong of a bond family could be.

Members of Captain James’ family and the other white characters on the plantation also added a lot to the story, offering a multitude of world views and opinions about race and class. In them, I could really see the balance (or lack thereof) of what they thought life was like for the slaves and what it was really like. I could also see the ways they valued people in general and the lengths they were willing to go through for their own gain or for what they believed was the right thing.

Overall:
2 stars. Would I re-read this? No. Would I recommend this to other people because of the story it tells? Sure, depending on the person. I’m not particularly fond of this book for the reason of Lavinia’s character and the lack of resolution I felt, but I do think that it tells an interesting story and taught me a lot about the differences between slavery and indentured servanthood.

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