Flipping the pages of the novel entitled “The Kitchen House” by Kathleen Grissom and immersing myself into the era of the 1800s has led me to a story plot that seems to echo the expression “the kitchen is the heart and soul of the home“.
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Here is the synopsis of the book at hand.
Synopsis: In this gripping New York Times bestseller, Kathleen Grissom brings to life a thriving plantation in Virginia in the decades before the Civil War, where a dark secret threatens to expose the best and worst in everyone tied to the estate.
Orphaned during her passage from Ireland, young, white Lavinia arrives on the steps of the kitchen house and is placed, as an indentured servant, under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate slave daughter. Lavinia learns to cook, clean, and serve food, while guided by the quiet strength and love of her new family.
In time, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, caring for the master’s opium-addicted wife and befriending his dangerous yet protective son. She attempts to straddle the worlds of the kitchen and big house, but her skin color will forever set her apart from Belle and the other slaves.
Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds.
Through the recounts of the two narrators in the story – the indenture servant girl, Lavinia and the master’s illegitimate slave daughter, Belle who worked in the kitchen house as servants and domestic helpers; their livelihood gives me a penetration of the master’s home, the society and the sociocultural aspect of the era.
As an outsider who knows little of the history of others, the plot exposes what slavery means, the drastic gap between the social strata where discrimination was right under one’s nose and playing out as the economic engine even to the minuscule of the everyday lives in homes of the era. Insights of the society’s lifestyle were painted throughout the book.
For the wealthy; the contribution of slaves in the kitchen, in the domestic care and farming were undoubtedly tremendous, yet the lives of these slaves were seen as conveniently replaceable and little to no value. The trade treated them as commodity and recognizes no colours as it absorbed the poor and misfortunate too.
Education was not for everyone, unlike today; the responsibility rest in families, conducted privately in homes and centered on the “3 Rs” (reading, writing and arithmetic) along with moral and religious training. The wealthy families’ children were schooled by tutors, while the older ones were sent to private schools and to further in college. The urban areas employed the teaching methods whereby the more advanced students taught those lesser in order to educate a larger group of students at a lower cost.
The freedom of religion and tolerance were practiced where Christians and Muslims were found living in a roof, even among slaves. People seemed to enjoy visiting, dancing, music and horse riding. The musical culture gradually grown as dances became an important social outlet and entertainment, while some slaves were taught music in order to play for their masters during functions where feasting, music and dancing were some of the common activities.
However deep in the core of the plot, the broken marriages and dysfunctional families played out, tearing the once beautiful kitchen house from inside-out, terrorizing every household and not even a slave was spared. Layer-by-layer secrecy piled up until it peaked and erupted like an unstable volcano spewing molten rocks, sizzling hot lava and dense smoke inflicting its victims with pain, agony, misery, impairment and even deaths.
It’s a tasteful historical novel with a pleasant narrative style which does not mystify a reader with complicated jargon nor any way near with getting lost.
As a closure, the expression “the kitchen is the heart and soul of the home” echoes throughout the book if you care to see it. Many activities of the household portrayed in the book revolve around it. Not only that, it mirrors the wide spectrum of a society and reflects the condition of a country or even a representation of the world at a particular point in time. To put it simply, it bare it all.
Source: Kathleen Grissom. The Kitchen House, a Novel (New York: Touchstone, 2010)