Saskatchewan-born Kathleen Grissom’s debut novel is a forthright, albeit overwrought, look at plantation life before the American Civil War. It focuses primarily on the women who lived through it, both up in the big house and in the shacks down below. Their joys, struggles, and heartbreaks are embodied in Lavinia, a seven-year-old Irish orphan brought home by Captain James Pyke, the owner of a tobacco plantation.
Though she is white, Lavinia is indentured to the family. She works alongside the slaves Mama Mae, Papa George, Belle (the captain’s illegitimate daughter), and a slew of children in the kitchen house, which is a place of privilege on the plantation. The slaves – a motley family unit themselves – dust, nurse, and cook for the Pykes in exchange for their relatively comfortable accommodations and other luxuries, like shoes. Inevitably, Lavinia realizes that, as a white girl, she must conform to a certain caste, one that doesn’t include her newfound black “family.”
The novel spans 19 years, during which Lavinia’s experience mirrors that of the slaves in the kitchen house but contains an additional level: as a white orphan, she is an outsider according to both the haves and the have-nots. Grissom creates parallels between many of the novel’s female characters, emphasizing that each one – even the mistress of the house – is subjugated in some way. Sex (usually in the form of rape) unifies the women and illustrates their powerlessness. This is an obvious device, but one that Grissom uses delicately to build and rebuild sisterly bonds among her female characters.
Unfortunately, the rest of the plot does not have the same nuance. Grissom has a penchant for manufacturing tragedy after tragedy to move the story forward. After the first 100 pages, the phrase “Go get Mama” loses its gut-wrenching punch.
Though there are several compelling insights in The Kitchen House, it’s nevertheless a formulaic story. There are graphic shocks, but no surprises. Grissom has clearly done extensive research into plantation life, but the cruelty and injustice of slavery is never really spoken of except in very conventional terms. Ignoring the brutal reality of slavery is, ultimately, what differentiates this novel from its betters.