The story of The Kitchen House begins at its end – with a young woman and terrified child happening upon a lifeless body swinging from a high tree branch, the ashes of a scorched plantation house smoldering in the background. How did it come to this?
Rewind about twenty years, when the Captain, owner of a thriving plantation, deposits a young White Irish girl in the kitchen house. The Captain expects that Belle, one of the slaves who works in the kitchen, will find some used of her. Finding the girl work, though, is near impossible considering just how sickly she is. She won’t speak to anyone at first, and cannot keep down any food for the first few weeks she lives in the kitchen house. Her past is a mystery to both her and the rest of the staff, and a great deal of time passes before she finally remembers that both her mom and dad died during passage from Ireland to the United States, after which her brother was sent to live elsewhere.
In a strange country without her family, Lavinia grows attached to the other slaves on the plantation, especially Belle, who is like a mother to her. However, as Lavinia grows up, she is treated increasingly less like her new Black family, and more like the White lady she is expected to become. The story centers on the confusion, isolation, and frustration Lavinia feels as she is expected to take on her new role in society.
I really enjoyed this story. A lot of other people took issue with how naïve Lavinia is when it comes to racial divides and social hierarchy. However, I can’t fault Lavinia for her ignorance, considering that she spent her formative years being raised with the other slaves as though she was Black like them, and then suddenly is expected to realize that her skin color affords her greater opportunities. How could she suddenly be expected to accept other’s insistence that she keep the other slaves, who for all intents and purposes are her family, at arm’s length when they were the ones who raised her, who she played with as a child, who she crawled into bed with at night, and who loved her like one of their own?
This is one of the better books I have read about slavery. In making the narrator a displaced Irish girl, the novel looks at slavery from a slightly different perspective, as someone who is caught in limbo between the two worlds, knowing she belongs in both but often feeling as though she doesn’t fully belong to either.
Final Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.