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Amber's Thoughts

Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series

 

 

Solid History and Strong Fiction

The Kitchen House - Kathleen Grissom

The day I finished this book, I pulled in at a gas station in Virginia, the state where this book is set, and saw a pick-up truck with a Confederate flag in the back window. Though I’d never liked this symbol, I’d never before reacted to it with such deep aversion, such a clear sense of what it actually stood for. The revulsion I felt for the social system of the antebellum South had been intensified by this extraordinary book. It’s a work of literature, but the accuracy of the history is solid. I worked for over a decade in an 18th C. history museum in Virginia and I’m well versed in the time period and the setting. The author portrays it as accurately as possible, from the planation slaves’ lives to the “big house” to a prosperous lawyer’s household to the insane asylum in Williamsburg—an advanced and humane mental hospital for its time and yet an abysmal place.

 

Grissom tells the intertwined stories of Belle, a slave in the household of her white father, and Lavinia, an orphaned Irish girl who comes to the planation as an indentured servant. Lavinia is raised among the slaves in the kitchen house with Belle as her substitute mother. The relationships are portrayed with compassion and complexity.

 

The story gives insight into daily life in a world where only a few had property and power. The position of a married woman was almost as powerless as a slave. Free in name, but not free at all. The legal system that supported this oppression is a key part of the story. Without the law, no man could have been such a tyrant as the overseer Rankin, or later the son who inherits the plantation. The psychological damage that slavery and inequality did to everyone—the powerful and the powerless—is the source of the tragedy of the story. The strength of those who managed to create bonds of love and friendship in those circumstances keeps the tale from being too dark to bear.

 

An important character for contrast with what Lavinia and Belle go through is Meg, the daughter of a lawyer in Williamsburg. Meg prefers the study of what was then called natural philosophy—science especially ornithology and botany—over living up to the social expectations of a woman of her social class. She postpones marriage, and as a single, educated woman she struck me as the freest and most fortunate person in the book. Even the good, kind, honest man who owns slaves is not so free.