Written by Kathleen Grissom
Published by Touchstone
Review by Nancy Anne Brayburn
I have not read much historical fiction that takes place in the South in the years after the American Revolution and before the Civil War, and that was a plus for me as I read The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. Grissom’s novel is told from the point of view of two characters, Lavinia and Belle. Lavinia is a young Irish girl who is orphaned on her family’s voyage to America. After being cruelly separated from her brother by Cap’n Pike, the plantation owner her family was to work for as indentured servants, Lavinia finds herself living with Pike’s illegitimate daughter, Belle, in the kitchen house. Though Belle has been accepted by Pike as his daughter, he kicks her out of the big house to the kitchen house when he brings home a wife. Lavinia finds a new family in Belle, as well as Mama Mae and Papa George, but there is still much suffering on the Pike plantation. Every catastrophe that can possibly befall them occurs. Rape, incest, murder, family lies, drug abuse, it all happens here, though somehow the events seem fitting for a story about the suffering slavery inflicts on human beings.
This novel is not weighted down with over long descriptions of the historical period. Grissom does a good job giving a sense of the time and place while keeping the story moving. This story is character driven rather than driven by the era as some historical fiction seems to be.
Lavinia’s narration is told from a future time when she is able to look back upon the events. Belle’s narration happens in real time as the events unfold. The juxtaposition of time adds depth to an already rich story. These characters speak to the irrepressible human spirit, and how it is possible to face adversity with strength. Sometimes in life we can only do the best we can with what we have. In this story we see how life has dealt these characters a bad hand, and yet they strive to form community and family despite it all. That lesson alone is worth the price of this book. _______________________________________________________________
Nancy Anne Brayburn lives in Buffalo, New York where she is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. She is working on her first historical novel set in New York City during the Prohibition era.