I don’t normally write book reviews but couldn’t resist this time. I feel so haunted by Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House that I feel the need to write out my feelings, as if to shake off the hold.
The story spans the years of 1791-1810 on a Virginia plantation. There are slaves,yes, and they’re sometimes treated badly, and some of the situations are hard to read, especially knowing they had no doubt taken place, in one respect or another. It’s not a shining time in the history of our country and Grissom doesn’t flinch from or sugarcoat realities.
The story follows Lavinia, an indentured servant, and Belle, a slave who works in the plantation’s kitchen house. It opens with suspense and once it quieted down, I found myself deep in plantation life with Mama Mae, Fanny and Beattie, Ben and Lucy, Lavina and Belle and Marshall. It was a comforting place to be. Except when it wasn’t.
Which is my biggest praise and complaint of the book: Just as soon as I settled inside the pages, conflict (and sometimes violence) arose, and while I read many books containing both conflict and violence, this was harder than normal to take. Maybe I identified too closely with the characters. Maybe something spoke to me beyond the words. Maybe it felt too real for my tastes.
What I do know is that while reading The Kitchen House I felt a true appreciation for how far we’ve come in terms of civil and women’s right. I also appreciated Grissom’s writing skill, which alternated between Belle’s and Lavina’s voices and consistently delivered an unfaltering, fresh touch.
What I loved most of the book was what I read at the end in the Author’s Note, how Grissom became intrigued with a notation for Negro Hill on an old map found in the plantation she and her husband restored. Soon after, the characters jumped into her head.
“I abhorred the thought of slavery and had always shied away from the subject,” she wrote. “Quickly, I slipped the writing in my desk drawer, determined to forget about it.”
But she couldn’t let it go. She researched plantations and interviewed individuals whose ancestors had been slaves.
“Each day more of the story unfolded, and when I finished, often emotionally spent, I was left to wonder what the following day would bring.”
But the best part of Grissom’s story is what she says next: “I tried on a number of occasions to change some of the events (those that I found profoundly disturbing), but the story would stop when I did that, so I forged ahead to write what was revealed.”
I love that the story sprang into Grissom’s head without warning, that the characters followed their own lead. Maybe that’s why the situations felt so glaringly real. Maybe it they were real. Maybe the book was narrated by ghosts, I don’t know. Only that I’m glad I found The Kitchen House, glad I had a chance to read and ponder, glad for the opportunity to read a book that leaves me feeling richer and broader for having had the experience.
I’d like to call Grissom up and say, “Thank you, honey.”