Some books offer such a special reading experience that friends pass it around, offer it up as a book club recommendation, or compare it with other favorite reads. “The Kitchen House,’’ by debut novelist Kathleen Grissom, appears well on its way to becoming such a book.In this story, set in 1791, a seven-year-old Irish girl becomes orphaned while making the treacherous sea journey from Ireland to America. With no memory of her past or her family, she is taken to the ship captain’s tobacco plantation in Virginia, where she is to live as an indentured servant. Assigned to work with the slaves in the kitchen house and placed in the care of the master’s mulatto daughter, Lavinia bonds with her new slave family. And just as quickly they come to love her as one of their own. Yet, as the child grows, she is also accepted into the “big house’’ by the captain’s wife, who battles opium addiction as she struggles to cope with running the plantation in the master’s long absences. Young Lavinia must learn to straddle two worlds, that of master and slave; black and white. In time, she must inevitably confront her torn loyalties, and the decisions she makes will hold irreversible consequences for everyone on the plantation.
I had heard about this book from several different sources and finally picket it up a few weeks ago. Ever since I finished The Kitchen House I have been trying to decide what I thought of it. It is clearly well written and a fantastic story, but the primary word that keeps coming to my mind has been "heart breaking". I had expected to be uncomfortable with the front row seat to a story about slavery, but I hadn't expected to be so affronted with the oppression of women in general in the culture. One reviewer stated "If I had to speculate on why the book is popular in this area, I’d say that it’s because women here feel such freedom and privilege that they are intrigued by a time and place that’s so different from our own." Another reviewer explained “This work poignantly shows how 18th century Southern white women were just as oppressed as the slaves, by both their husbands and culture. Women like Lavinia were simply allowed no voice, and at best, were considered pretty adornments. Lavinia couldn’t possibly help her black family or even herself, because she had no power in the world of men.’’
This is one of those books that I am glad I read, although I'm not sure I would say that I enjoyed it. It definitely made me grateful for the time and place that I live and that I don't face the fears or repression that these women did. However, it saddens me to know that even though a lot of time has passed, there are still areas of the world where not much has changed for women. Seems like a never ending struggle and the only way anything will ever change is through education and awareness. Reading the book and writing this review makes me realize I need to figure out how to do more.