Monday, March 9, 2015

Book Review: The Kitchen House

From the age of about 6 I was a voracious reader. All through my childhood I devoured books and never went to sleep without reading until I was ordered to turn off the light. Even then I would usually plead for just one more chapter and after Mum or Dad had disappeared I would continue reading in the dim light cast from the hallway on the bottom corner of my bed (yes I'm sure it didn't help my dodgy eyesight at all).

Somehow as I transitioned to the adult world I lost that habit of quiet evening reading in bed. Books became something that I plowed through when on holiday in a binge of literature, but during the normal course of a week I rarely touched. This year, however, I've turned that around. I'm back to a few chapters before bed, although now it is S telling me to turn off the light and with him in the bed I can't really get in a sneaky few extra chapters!

The latest book I read was "The Kitchen House" by Kathleen Grissom. The synopsis is:

When 7-year-old Irish orphan Lavinia is transported to Virginia to work in the kitchen of a wealthy plantation owner, she is absorbed into the life of the kitchen house and becomes part of the family of black slaves whose fates are tied to the plantation. But Livinia's skin will always set her apart, whether she wishes it or not. And as she grows older, she will be torn between the life that awaits her as a white women and the people she knows as kin.

Set in the late 18th and early 19th century, the book is narrated by Lavinia, an Irish indentured servant and Belle, a half-caste negro slave and is set on a Virginian plantation. While I have to say that the writing didn't grab me - it certainly wasn't a book where I re-read sentences for the enjoyment of the words - the story certainly did.

It is essentially the story of people coping with powerlessness. Skin colour, ownership, gender, societal expectation and money all leave the main characters with extreme limitations on their ability to control their lives and allows those with power the most horrific control of the situations.

There are some fairly grim, but I suspect historically accurate episodes throughout the book and I do think fiction is a great way to learn about history. It is the kind of story where the perpetrators get their comeuppance and everything works out in the end but there is tragedy, and somehow the ending doesn't feel as trite as I thought it may have.

Overall I really enjoyed "The Kitchen House". I think it is important that books remind us of what was, and what in some parts of the world still is. While at times this is an uncomfortable read, reminders of how humans can treat each other is never wasted.  

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