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The Kitchen House: A Novel Paperback – February 2, 2010
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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.
The Kitchen House is a tragic story of page-turning suspense, exploring the meaning of family, where love and loyalty prevail.
Explore the reading group guide for The Kitchen House.
A Conversation with Author Kathleen Grissom
Q: What information surprised you while doing research on white indentured servants?
A: When I first began my research I was astonished to discover the great numbers of Irish that were brought over as indentured servants. Then, when I saw advertisements for runaway Irish indentured servants, I realized that some of them, too, must have suffered under intolerable conditions.
Q: Why did you chose not to go into detail about some of the most dramatic plot points in the novel, for example, the death of Waters or the abuse of young Marshall?
A: For the most part, Lavinia and Belle dictated the story to me. From the beginning, it became quite clear that if I tried to embellish or change their story, their narration would stop. When I withdrew, the story would continue. Their voices were quite distinct. Belle, who always felt grounded to me, certainly did not hold back with description, particularly of the rape. Lavinia, on the other hand, felt less stable, less able to cope; and at times it felt as though she was scarcely able to relate her horror.
Q: It is interesting that your novel has two narrators--Lavinia and Belle. Do you have any plans to continue the story into the next generation--perhaps from the perspectives of Jaime and Elly?
A: In 1830, Jamie is a well-respected ornithologist in Philadelphia and Sukey is enslaved by the Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. Theirs are the two voices I hear. In time I will know if I am meant to tell their story. Presently I am writing Crow Mary, another work of historical fiction. A few years ago I was visiting Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan. As I listened to an interpreter tell of Mary, who, in 1872, at the age of sixteen, was traded in marriage to a well-known fur trader, a familiar deep chill went thorough me. I knew then that I would return to write about this Crow woman. Some of her complex life is documented, and what fascinates me are her acts of bravery, equal, in my estimation, to those of Mama Mae.
Q: This is your first novel after diverse careers in retail, agriculture, and the arts. How have each of these experiences contributed to your writing style?
A: I don't know that any endeavor specifically contributed to my writing style, but I do know that every phase of my life helped prepare me to write this book.
Q: The dialogue of the slaves in this novel is very believable. It must have been a difficult thing to achieve. How did you go about creating authentic voices from two hundred years ago?
A: At the very beginning of my research I read two books of slave narratives: Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember and Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves. Soon after, the voices from The Kitchen House began to come to me. My original draft included such heavy dialect that it made the story very difficult to read. In time I modified the style so the story could be more easily read.
Q: You said you wrote the prologue in one sitting after being inspired by a map you found while renovating an old plantation tavern. Since this is your first novel, do you think you were "guided" by residents of the past?
A: Not only do I feel I was guided but also that I was gifted with their trust. However, I am not alone in this. In Alice Walker's book The Color Purple, she writes: "I thank everybody in this book for coming. A.W., author and medium." Unless I misread that, I'd say, in this experience, I'm in good company.
Q: Your book has been described as "Gone with the Wind turned upside down." Are you a fan of Margaret Mitchell's novel? Which writers have inspired you through the years?
A: I have only recently read Gone with the Wind. Although I did enjoy it, a few of the writers that have truly inspired me are Robert Morgan, Alice Randall, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Edward P. Jones, Nuala O'Faolain, Alexandra Fuller, Susan Howatch, Rick Bragg, Breena Clarke, Beryl Markham, Alice Walker, Joan Didion . . . this list could go on forever. I love to read.
Q: There are many characters in this novel. How did you go about choosing their names?
A: They were all taken from different lists of slaves that I found in my research.
Q: What advice do you have for writers working on their first novels?
A: If you feel called to write a book, consider it a gift. Look around you. What assistance is the universe offering you as support? I was given an amazing mentor, a poet, Eleanor Drewry Dolan, who taught me the importance of every word. To my utter amazement, there were times she found it necessary to consult three dictionaries to evaluate one word! Take the time you need to learn the craft. Then sit down and write. When you hand over your completed manuscript to a trusted reader, keep an open mind. Edit, edit, and edit again. And, of course, never give up! Q: At times in the novel, you can almost smell the hearty foods being prepared by Mama and others. In your research, did you find any specific notes or recipes from kitchen houses that you can share with your readers?
A: In 1737, William Byrd, founder of Richmond, wrote of the many types of fruits and vegetables available in Virginia. Watermelons, pumpkins, squashes, cucumbers, artichokes, asparagus, green beans, and cauliflower were all being cultivated. I discovered that many of these were preserved by pickling. For those interested in how this was done and for recipes from that time, an excellent resource is Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, transcribed by Karen Hess.
While in Williamsburg, I watched re enactors roast beef over a spit in a kitchen fireplace. Small potatoes in a pan beneath the meat were browning in the drippings, and I cannot tell you how I longed for a taste. That was my inspiration for the Christmas meal. For basics, such as the chicken soup, I built a recipe around what I knew would have been available for use in the kitchen house at that time.
Whenever Belle baked a molasses cake, I craved a taste. I did try several old recipes that I found, but I was unsatisfied with the results. So, using the old recipes as a baseline, my daughter, Erin, and I created our own version of a simple yet moist and tasty molasses cake. I am happy to share it with the readers:
Simple Molasses Cake
½ cup butter
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup milk
1 cup molasses
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 dashes ground cloves
¼ teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inchsquare baking pan. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and the molasses. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and salt. Add each of these alternately to the butter mixture, beating well between additions. Spoon batter into the prepared pan. Bake for approximately 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
From Publishers Weekly
Grissom's unsentimental debut twists the conventions of the antebellum novel just enough to give readers an involving new perspective on what would otherwise be fairly stock material. Lavinia, an orphaned seven-year-old white indentured servant, arrives in 1791 to work in the kitchen house at Tall Oaks, a Tidewater, Va., tobacco plantation owned by Capt. James Pyke. Belle, the captain's illegitimate half-white daughter who runs the kitchen house, shares narration duties, and the two distinctly different voices chronicle a troublesome 20 years: Lavinia becomes close to the slaves working the kitchen house, but she can't fully fit in because of her race. At 17, she marries Marshall, the captain's brutish son turned inept plantation master, and as Lavinia ingratiates herself into the family and the big house, racial tensions boil over into lynching, rape, arson, and murder. The plantation's social order's emphasis on violence, love, power, and corruption provides a trove of tension and grit, while the many nefarious doings will keep readers hooked to the twisted, yet hopeful, conclusion. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Top Customer Reviews
After reading "The Kitchen House" I believe that Kathleen Grissom has crafted an absorbing historical tale that probes the darkest edges in this villainous period of American history by employing an extraordinary and distinctive approach. The author cleverly created two contrasting protagonists, Lavinia, the white girl-to-woman, and Belle, the mixed race slave, to move the story alternately from their separate perspectives; Ms. Grissom guides the reader into the deepest reaches of the soul of each character in the book. For me, at least, this memorable cast of characters, from the good ones to the downright evil ones seems to have established permanent residence in my thoughts. While I agree with M. Jacobsen's comment that Belle's chapters could have been longer (I really loved Belle), I don't believe her role to be less significant than Lavinia's. Lavinia, as a white person observes and shares the slave experience from within. This approach is unique, I think. At least, I don't recall encountering the technique in literature, and I found it extremely compelling.
The actual historical events of the period are less prominent than the actions, emotions and motivations of the people who live on either side of the implied, but not to be violated, boundary between the races. I think that the complicated relationships between Lavinia and Belle, Mama, and many of the other characters, allow the reader to discover tiny, but significant, cracks in this boundary through which the plot races along from crisis to crisis and then to the shocking, yet fitting conclusion.
Ms. Grissom obviously conducted exhaustive research into the time period of the book. As a born Canadian, she must be commended. In the book she succeeded in describing the customs, mores and artifacts of this period in a clear and entertaining way. Often, when reading a novel, I tend to skip over descriptive passages so as not to interrupt plot progression and character development. In "The Kitchen House" I found the descriptions and details charming and sometimes melancholy. Who can forget, now, what a vasculum is, or forget the image of little slave children pulling the cords of the ceiling fans in the dining rooms to cool their masters on stifling summer days?
I enjoyed reading this book so much that I bought several extra copies to share a very inspiring and special reading experience with special people. So, Ms. Grissom - will we be finding out what happens to the "Kitchen House" characters in the next generation? Kathleen Grissom's powerful first novel leaves me eagerly awaiting the next, whether or not it is a sequel or a totally new historical novel from a totally different perspective.
First, the parts I loved. The characters are well-drawn and easy to love or hate, depending on which one we're talking about. Most points are plausible, which shows the author must have done a great deal of research. The plot gave this book a storyline I absolutely enjoyed; as I fell asleep each night during the time I read this, I'd wondered about the characters and what would happen to them.
Now onto the parts I wasn't so fond of. The main problem I had with the prose was that so many large sections were told in a summerized fashion, as opposed to being written in a way that gave the reader more connection with the story, a great example of the wrong side of the 'show vs tell' writers are warned against. Some historical facts were recited in a teacherly manner instead of being better incorporated into the story. There were A LOT of redundant areas where the reader repeated the exact same thing over and over and over, which greatly detracted from the story and made me wonder if word count had been an issue. One example would be when the parentage of a particular person was discussed between different characters in one chapter at least four times using nearly the same wording. There were a few historical points that I think were a bit off, and the accents could have more accurate. For example, the main character Lavinia is straight off the ship from Ireland but there is only one mention of her accent and it never shows through in her dialogue.
I was enthralled with the story, but the prose could have been more polished.
I felt that this story was well written and the characters were well developed. I appreciated the narrative style and that two very different characters were the narrators. I honestly found the story very compelling and finished this book in one (very long) day. I couldn't put it down.
I have two issues with the book. The first being that I felt like there was far too much trauma included in one story. Yes, I know that the antebellum south was a terrible place to live, especially as a slave. However, there was little positive to bring you out of the emotional downs and I found myself very emotional without reprieve at times. Second, I got very frustrated with some of the details in the story. Important details would be known, by all but one or two key persons and if those key persons would have been told the entire outcome would have been different. I know that this was most likely part of the story building plan. It was so frustrating though-- I wanted to yell at the characters "why doesn't anyone tell miss Martha that Bell is........?" or "Why hasn't anyone told Lavinia that Will and Belle are not..........?" It seems that in real life, someone would have had the sense to realize the negativity that was resulting due to ignorance and would have filled them in.
If that had been done, this would have been a very different story, and more enjoyable for me.