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Kitchen House (Grissom)

The Kitchen House
Kathleen Grissom, 2010
Simon & Schuster
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781439153666


Summary
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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—N/A
Raised—Annaheim, Saskatchewan, Canada
Education—nursing school
Currently—lives in rural Virginia


In her words
Born Kathleen Doepker, I was privileged as a child to be raised in Annaheim, Saskatchewan, a hamlet on the plains of Canada. Although we lived in a small, tightly knit Roman Catholic community, I was fortunate to have parents who were open to other religions and cultures. Since television was not a luxury our household could afford, books were the windows that expanded my world

Soon after Sister Colette, my first grade teacher, introduced me to Dick, Jane, and Sally, I began to read on my own. I was a fanciful child and became so influenced by books that while I was reading Five Little Peppers And How They Grew I ate only cold boiled potatoes (the truth is this lasted only for a day) as I suffered with them through their hardships. After reading Anne Of Green Gables I was convinced that I, too, was adopted, until my mother told me to stop the foolishness and to look in the mirror. I had her nose. She was right. I limped desperately during Red Shoes For Nancy until my sister, Judy, told me to cut it out, people would think that something was wrong with me. Wanting to more closely experience Helen Keller’s tribulations, at every opportunity I walked with closed eyes until I solidly whacked my head on a doorframe. Enid Blynton’s "Famous Five" series had me looking for adventure around every corner, and when in class Rudyard Kipling’s, Kim, was read aloud, I couldn’t wait to leave for far-off lands.

Throughout my high school years Simon Lizee, a poet of merit, was our principal. He taught us literature and it was he who encouraged me to write.

Upon graduating from high school, as I saw it then, I had four choices. I could marry (no), become a secretary (no), become a teacher (no) become a nurse (yes). After I graduated from nursing school, I left for Montreal and there worked on staff at the Royal Vic Hospital. Eventually I married and came down to the United States. Throughout, I read voraciously and I wrote, often sending my work back to Mr. Lizee in Saskatchewan, who took the time to continue to instruct me.

It wasn’t until after I gave birth to my daughter, Erin, that I finally worked up enough courage to submit a short story to Myrna Blyth, who, I believe at that time was an editor at Family Circle. She sent back a lovely rejection note, telling me that this story was not one that she could use, but could I send others. I took that note to mean that she did not like my writing, but was being kind, and I foolishly submitted nothing further. 

In time, I divorced and remarried, relocated to Manhattan, and there worked as an Ad Executive for a graphics company. I did not stop reading, nor writing, and over the next years took various classes in creative writing. After four years in the city, we decided to try life on a small farm in New Jersey.

When our collection of animals grew to include twenty-five Cashmere goats, two horses, three dogs, and two cats, we knew that it was time to relocate to a larger farm in rural Virginia. There we found twenty-seven acres and a large brick house, circa 1830, that once served as a stagecoach stop.

But with the move came a glitch. For the first year my husband’s transfer didn’t happen as planned, and although he joined me every weekend, I was left on the new farm to manage on my own. It was an exciting yet frightening time, and I began to journal the experience. I joined a writers' group, and the Piedmont Literary Society, and when I met Eleanor Dolan, a gifted poet, she generously agreed to mentor me in my writing.

In the following years, Charles and I established an herb farm, a tearoom, and a gift shop that we filled to the barn rafters with work from local artisans. As we restored our old plantation home, I began to research the history of our home and the land that surrounded it.

Then I discovered the notation "Negro Hill" on an old map. Unable to determine the story of its origin, local historians suggested that it most likely represented a tragedy. To this day I am uncertain why the notation captured me so, but fascinated, I gradually set aside everything else to pursue the research and writing of the story that is now The Kitchen House.

Presently, I am researching and writing about the true life story of Crow Mary, a Native woman who carried a Colt revolver on her studded belt and wasn’t afraid to use it! Can you imagine the fun I am having? (From the author's website.)



Book Reviews
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.
Publishers Weekly


Irish orphan finds a new family among slaves in Grissom's pulse-quickening debut. Lavinia is only six in 1791, when her parents die aboard ship and the captain, James Pyke, brings her to work as an indentured servant at Tall Oaks, his Virginia plantation. Pyke's illegitimate daughter Belle, chief cook (and alternate narrator with Lavinia), takes reluctant charge of the little white girl. Belle and the other house slaves, including Mama Mae and Papa George, their son Ben, grizzled Uncle Jacob and youngsters Beattie and Fanny, soon embrace Lavinia as their own. Otherwise, life at Tall Oaks is grim. Pyke's wife Martha sinks deeper into laudanum addiction during the captain's long absences. Brutal, drunken overseer Rankin starves and beats the field slaves. The Pykes' 11-year-old son Marshall "accidentally" causes his young sister Sally's death, and Ben is horribly mutilated by Rankin. When Martha, distraught over Sally, ignores her infant son Campbell, Lavinia bonds with the baby, as well as with Sukey, daughter of Campbell's black wet nurse Dory. Captain Pyke's trip to Philadelphia to find a husband for Belle proves disastrous; Dory and Campbell die of yellow fever, and Pyke contracts a chronic infection that will eventually kill him. Marshall is sent to boarding school, but returns from time to time to wreak havoc, which includes raping Belle, whom he doesn't know is his half-sister. After the captain dies, through a convoluted convergence of events, Lavinia marries Marshall and at 17 becomes the mistress of Tall Oaks. At first her savior, Marshall is soon Lavinia's jailer. Kindly neighboring farmer Will rescues several Tall Oaks slaves, among them Ben and Belle, who, unbeknownst to all, was emancipated by the captain years ago. As Rankin and Marshall outdo each other in infamy, the stage is set for a breathless but excruciatingly attenuated denouement. Melodramatic for sure, but the author manages to avoid stereotypes while maintaining a brisk pace.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Why do you think the author chose to tell the story through two narrators? How are Lavinia's observations and judgments different from Belle's? Does this story belong to one more than the other? If you could choose another character to narrate the novel, who would it be?

2. One of the novel's themes is history repeating itself. Another theme is isolation. Select scenes from The Kitchen House that depict each theme and discuss. Are there scenes in which the two themes intersect?

3. "Mae knows that her eldest daughter consorts with my husband. . . Almost from the beginning, I suspected their secrets" (page 107). Why does the captain keep Belle's true identity a secret from his wife and children? Do you think the truth would have been a relief to his family or torn them further apart? At what point does keeping this secret turn tragic?

4. Discuss the significance of birds and bird nests in the novel. What or who do they symbolize? What other symbols support the novel?

5. "When I saw their hunger I was struck with a deep familiarity and turned away, my mind anxious to keep at bay memories it was not yet ready to recall" (page 24). Consider Lavinia's history. Do you think the captain saved her life by bringing her to America as an indentured servant? Or do you think it was a fate worse than the one she would have faced in Ireland? Discuss the difference between slavery and indentured servitude.

6. Marshall is a complicated character. At times, he is kind and protective; other times, he is a violent monster. What is the secret that Marshall is forced to keep? Is he to blame for what happened to Sally? Why do you think Marshall was loyal to Rankin, who was a conspirator with Mr. Waters?

7. "I grew convinced that if she saw me, she would become well again" (page 188). Why does Lavinia feel that her presence would help Miss Martha? Describe their relationship. If Lavinia is nurtured by Mama and Belle, why does she need Miss Martha's attention? Is the relationship one-sided, or does Miss Martha care for Lavinia in return?

8. "Fortunately, making myself amenable was not foreign to me, as I had lived this way for much of my life" (page 233). Do you think this attribute of Lavinia saves or endangers her life? Give examples for both.

9. Describe the relationship between Ben's wife, Lucy, and Belle. How does it evolve throughout the novel? Is it difficult for you to understand their friendship? Why or why not?

10. "I was as enslaved as all the others" (page 300). Do you think this statement by Lavinia is fair? Is her position equivalent to those of the slaves? What freedom does she have that the slaves do not? What burdens does her race put upon her?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

 

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