Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Goodreads Description: "When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family. 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."

My Review: I initially was very hesitant to begin this book. The premise seemed interesting---if a bit vague---but I was afraid the book would fall quickly into White Savior territory. You know, like The Help. No matter how "good" the protagonist is, it rubs me the wrong way when we see a white person as the main character in a novel about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement era...simply because there are SO many important stories you could tell featuring a black main character. Why on Earth resort to white, especially when people of color rarely get the chance to be main characters? 

But then I thought, Fine, why not. Irish slaves did exist---though they were obviously FAR fewer in number than African slaves---so their stories deserve to be told as well. Let's give it a try. 

What I liked throughout the whole book was that it was engaging and it definitely showed several emotional journeys. It started off a bit slow but picked up pace as it went on and I began to really feel for Lavinia and understand her attachment to, and love for, the slaves in the kitchen house. The book took us from Lavinia's childhood on the plantation through the years till when she was a mother to a young child herself and along with seeing Lavinia's growth and journey, we witnessed several other characters age, marry, have children, and generally go through different life stages. I really liked this because it cemented that as real people to care for. They didn't just exist in the here and now of a book---they had whole lives. 

What I didn't like was how melodramatic it became. It almost veered into soap opera territory at some times. I'm not saying slaves' lives were easy; they weren't, they were horrifically cruel and filled with unimaginable hardships. But Kathleen Grissom added almost every traumatic event one can imagine---slavery, murder, rape, incest, abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, lynching, even houses burning down---in the book and it added an air of unrealistic-ness because it was just one bad thing after another in a very dramatic fashion and you weren't sure what the point was, except to make the characters' lives miserable. The book could have done without a few of the traumatic events; if she'd just focused on a few and made some interesting points about them or had them affect her characters in unique ways, that might have been better. 

A lot of people complained that the characters in the book were too trope-y and based on stereotypes. I disagree. Sure, it seemed a bit unrealistic that every character was neatly grouped into either The Good Guys or The Bad Guys but you know what? I managed to ignore all that simply because of the emotion and heart Kathleen Grissom managed to put into her characters. The book was well-written, not the most amazing writing ever, but she really managed to create characters full of simple emotion that tugged at your heart. 

All in all, I liked it. I never felt that Lavinia's character became White Savior-ish (I would have put the book down if she had) and the book was an emotional, kind of sappy read. Not full of particularly brilliant social commentary, not full of any deep themes or discussion---just a book that was really all about the power of family and love in the face of incredible hardship. And sometimes, that's nice to read about. 

Cover: It's...alright. I'm not sure I like how the cover is sectioned off into almost-blurry photos (perhaps it would have been better with just one photo? Like of the plantation mansion? The blue photo takes up way too much space and doesn't show much) but the color theme does jump out at you a bit. The orange was a good choice. 

Overall Grade: B+

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