Friday, April 30, 2010


After reviewing a couple of truly forgettable books I am happy to present a book I know I will remember for a long time. "The Kitchen House" by Kathleen Grissom is already one of my favorite books for 2010.

Seven-year-old Lavinia McCarten's family is traveling from Ireland to America in 1791 when both her mother and father become ill and die aboard ship. Because her parents were indebted to Captain James Pyke for their passage, Lavinia becomes an indentured servant to the Cap'n and goes to live on his southern plantation. Although she is white Irish, she is put to work with the black cook, Belle. She is soon taken under the kindly, loving wing of Mama Mae, the head of the house slaves. Mama Mae's family becomes Lavinia's too. She is soon fast friends with Mama's twin daughters, Beattie and Fanny, who are her own age.

Called Abinia by her new family, Lavinia comes to love Belle, Mama Mae, Mama's eldest daughter Dory, Mama's husband Papa George and her adopted sisters, as well as "Uncle" Jacob and Belle's lover Ben. 

Although she has some contact with the Captain and Mrs. Pyke and their children Marshall and Sally, Lavinia is, to all intents and purposes, considered to be a little negro slave. Mama Mae is her mama and her life is the life of a house slave, who exists below the white people of the big house but above the lesser slaves, the field negroes. Her world, indeed, is the small world of Mama Mae's cabin and Belle's kitchen house.

In the course of time, Lavinia, indentured servant that she is, is sent to town to live with Mrs. Pyke's sister and her family. There, she is integrated into the white world and taught the social graces. When Lavinia reaches adulthood she receives her freedom and Marshall, the new master of the plantation, asks her to marry him.

Lavinia consents with delight. It has always been her dream to return "home" and be reunited with her beloved family. But of course, nothing remains the same. Lavinia is a white lady now. Mae, Belle, Beattie, Fanny, Papa George and the rest are her servants, not her friends. She can't even call Mama Mae "mama" any more. Mrs. Pyke has descended into a world of madness and Marshall, whose always-present cruel streak has widened to include Lavinia as a target, is gambling away his inheritance.

The nightmare continues to unfold, but Lavinia discovers strengths she barely knew she had. By 1810, saving her home and her true family becomes the sole focus of her existence. Just 26, Lavinia has to muster all her resources and race against time to protect those that she loves.

The characters in "The Kitchen House" are very well written and the love that exists between Lavinia and her family shimmers on every page. On the plantation, Grisson has created a vibrant  microcosm of the struggle between the races in America.

In terms of creating that special relationship that often exists between a little girl and her black nanny/servant, "The Kitchen House" stands equal with such classics as "Gone With The Wind" and "To Kill A Mockingbird".

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