Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like. This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag). Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me. Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.
Review of The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
Lavinia, an orphaned Irish immigrant, arrives at a Virginia tobacco plantation as an indentured servant in the 1790s. She is adopted by the family of slaves who work in the Big House and the Kitchen House (Mama Mae, Papa George, Uncle Jacob, Belle, Dory, Ben, Beattie and Fanny). The novel covers her life from the age of seven to her mid-twenties.
The novel is narrated primarily from Lavinia’s point of view, but Belle’s perspective is also given. Belle is of mixed race, the illegitimate daughter of the plantation owner, Captain Pyke. Certainly the point of view of a white indentured servant is original, but for me there were a number of problems with the novel.
First of all, I found Lavinia’s characterization problematic. Her naivety is unbelievable. She is raised by blacks and so sees first-hand the mistreatment they receive, yet she wants to be treated like them, not like a white person. At times she is just so foolish, making bad choices based solely on assumptions and misunderstandings which could easily have been cleared up with some frank discussion.
Characterization problems continue with other characters as well. The blacks tend to be too good, especially the adults such as Mama Mae, Papa George, and Uncle Jacob. On the other hand, some of the whites are pure evil. Mr. Rankin, the overseer, and Mr. Waters, the tutor, have no redeeming qualities. No background is given about them, so their motivations are unexplained.
There is definite plot manipulation. Unnecessary conflict is often the result of unspoken truths. Why, for example, does Captain Pyke let everyone believe that Belle is his mistress when she is in fact his daughter? Furthermore important documents are lost and then found at too convenient times.
There is so much tragedy in the book. There are countless beatings, deaths, and rapes, and the number of children fathered by white men with black women defies belief. With so many tragic things happening, the reader is left feeling numbed. To be honest, I felt emotionally manipulated.
The novel certainly portrays the vulnerability and powerlessness of women, especially female slaves. Their only strength is their families.
Too much melodrama, weak characterization, and plot manipulation make this less than quality fiction.