The Kitchen House by Katherine Grissom, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy and Bahni Tupin, Audible Audio, May 2010, 12 hours, 55 minutes
...if you like well researched historical fiction and a yarn with lots of going on you’ll enjoy this one
The Kitchen House is set in colonial Virginia, 1790-1810. It tells the story of a young Irish girl, Lavinia, daughter of indentured servants who died on the voyage from Ireland. She is taken to a rural plantation and left to be raised by the slaves on the plantation. She is given elevated status and works in the kitchen house preparing meals for the white family (the Pikes) who own the plantation. Taken under the wing of Belle, black daughter of Captain Pike, Lavinia becomes part of the black community on the farm, going so far as to call them “her family”.
The story is told in alternating voices of Belle and Lavinia. It is a good historical tale. It shows the cruelty and hardships faced by the slaves, the hopelessness of their lives. It touches on the difficulty of life in general during this time. Infant mortality was the rule rather than the exception and both the slaves and the plantation mistress lose children to accidents and disease. When Captain Pike dies and his wife Miss Martha succumbs to mental illness, Lavinia is taken to Williamsburg to live with Miss Martha’s sister. She yearns to return to the plantation and the people she grew up with. Things take off from there and I’ll not try to recap this busy novel here.
I had somewhat mixed feelings about this story. It is a page turner, you really want to know what happens to these characters but it was a little too much of a soap opera for me. It has all the requisite elements of soap – rape, child abuse, murder, lynchings, polygamy and drug abuse. Many of the characters are stereotypical and not complex– the plantation overseer, the wastrel son, the kindly black mother, the too good to be true neighbor. The author does have a tendency to summarize events rather than show them which is a little disconcerting. Despite this I did enjoy this story.
So in summary if you like well researched historical fiction and a yarn with lots of going on you’ll enjoy this one, if you are looking for a more complex telling of plantation life and slave/master relationships there are other choices - March by Geraldine Brooks or The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Earnest Gaines come to mind.
I listened to the audio edition of this story. Orlagh Cassidy read the Lavinia role and she was excellent. The very talented Bahni Turpin read Belle and she was also excellent. For me, I think listening to the story was better than reading it. The voices gave a dimension to these characters that I don’t think would have been there for me on the page.