Friday, May 13, 2016

The Kitchen House

Book: The Kitchen House
Author: Kathleen Grissom
Edition: Paperback
Read:May 13, 2017
365 pages
Genre:  Fiction, Fiction-History, Slavery
Rated: 2.5  out of 5

Written as a contrast between a white indentured servant, Lavinia, and a black slave Belle. The story follows Lavinia as a young child living with black slaves in the late 1790's near Williamsburg. Lavinia does not understand she is white and her "family" are black and what difference this makes.

As Lavinia ages, she is expected to take her place in white society. But she feels more attachments to her black family than white society. So she is sent off to her mistress' family in WIlliamsburg to live in white society and learn how to live that society. The expectation is to be married into that society.

And that is what happens. Her master's son takes an interest in her after a villager tries to take advantage of her. The problem, is the son is seeking a trophy wife. He has other ways to satisfy his coarser lusts. Eventually there is a scene where Lavinia has to escape. She seeks protection from a friend. But the price? Is the death of some of her black "family". That is how things end.

How can a book be too slow and too fast?  Kathleen Grissom has found a way. The first third of the book, I kept wondering how will I make it through this book. Then you start getting a bit interested in the characters in the middle. But either I whizzed through the end of the story-I needed to read it before meeting with my book group--or the story just whizzed by me. I suspect the later. It seemed like Grissom felt she needed to end the story and quickly.

As a story, Grissom's book has some potential. Working through what did it mean to be a white indentured servant living with black slaves and the differences between the two could be of interest. And Grissom does talk about that. But there is something lacking-what it is, I do not know. Maybe it was the initial pedestrian pace of the book which made me more like prodding through it rather than a pleasure trip. Not so much that a book has to be light to be enjoyable, but at the end of the book, I am not sure there was anything particular to chew on.

Notes from my book group:
General comments:
  • Over the top
  • There is no redemption presented in this book, only bad choices
  • Why did Marshall marry Lavinia? It makes no sense.

What is an indentured servant? How is it different than a slave? How does Grissom show the differences between the two in this story? How are they the same?

 Pretense of ignorance could serve me well (266) How does this statement show the shape of this book? How does Lavinia show herself ignorant of her surroundings throughout the book? How was ignorance help her? How does it cause trouble?

In parallel with the ignorance statement, Grissom has Mama Mae saying that Lavinia thinks like a child (276) and that she doesn't know that when she married Marshall, she's gonna take on his world. Was Lavinia able to change Marshall, or even modify his ways? Was he able to modify her ways? How did either of these come about? Paul writes, And do not be conformed to this world (Rom 12:2). After reading this story, how is the world stronger than us? How does it transform us? How can we resist?

We read The Invention of Wings as a group. The Invention of Wings also uses the thoughts of two women, one black and one white. What do the two stories have in common? How are they different? What do they show us about the relationship between whites in the South during this time and blacks? Does Grissom use this style and contrast effectively? What does she bring out through this style?

When Lavinia becomes mistress of the house, what constraints does she find on her? Why is this surprising? What constraints do we find when we are put into a position of power? How is that frustrating? Does she seem like a slave to you? Or what term would you call her place?

How does Lavinia escape her situation? Is this how Miss Martha escaped hers? What other options did she have?

The Captain, Marshall, Rankin, Will Stephens, Mr Madden, Papa, Ben, and Mr Boran all have roles in the book. I find most of the stronger roles are negative. 

Question from LitLovers
1. Why do you think the author chose to tell the story through two narrators? How are Lavinia's observations and judgments different from Belle's? Does this story belong to one more than the other? If you could choose another character to narrate the novel, who would it be?

2. One of the novel's themes is history repeating itself. Another theme is isolation. Select scenes from The Kitchen House that depict each theme and discuss. Are there scenes in which the two themes intersect?

3. "Mae knows that her eldest daughter consorts with my husband. . . Almost from the beginning, I suspected their secrets" (page 107). Why does the captain keep Belle's true identity a secret from his wife and children? Do you think the truth would have been a relief to his family or torn them further apart? At what point does keeping this secret turn tragic?

4. Discuss the significance of birds and bird nests in the novel. What or who do they symbolize? What other symbols support the novel?

5. "When I saw their hunger I was struck with a deep familiarity and turned away, my mind anxious to keep at bay memories it was not yet ready to recall" (page 24). Consider Lavinia's history. Do you think the captain saved her life by bringing her to America as an indentured servant? Or do you think it was a fate worse than the one she would have faced in Ireland? Discuss the difference between slavery and indentured servitude.

6. Marshall is a complicated character. At times, he is kind and protective; other times, he is a violent monster. What is the secret that Marshall is forced to keep? Is he to blame for what happened to Sally? Why do you think Marshall was loyal to Rankin, who was a conspirator with Mr. Waters?

7. "I grew convinced that if she saw me, she would become well again" (page 188). Why does Lavinia feel that her presence would help Miss Martha? Describe their relationship. If Lavinia is nurtured by Mama and Belle, why does she need Miss Martha's attention? Is the relationship one-sided, or does Miss Martha care for Lavinia in return?

8. "Fortunately, making myself amenable was not foreign to me, as I had lived this way for much of my life" (page 233). Do you think this attribute of Lavinia saves or endangers her life? Give examples for both.

9. Describe the relationship between Ben's wife, Lucy, and Belle. How does it evolve throughout the novel? Is it difficult for you to understand their friendship? Why or why not?

10. "I was as enslaved as all the others" (page 300). Do you think this statement by Lavinia is fair? Is her position equivalent to those of the slaves? What freedom does she have that the slaves do not? What burdens does her race put upon her?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

New Words:
  • vasculum (177): a collecting box for plants, typically in the form of a flattened cylindrical metal case with a lengthwise opening, carried by a shoulder strap.

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: There was a strong smell of smoke and new fear fueled me.
  • Last Line: Her headstone was engraved: Belle Pyke  Daughter of James Pyke


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