53 pages 1 hour read

Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2010

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Summary and Study Guide


Kathleen Grissom’s 2010 novel, The Kitchen House, is a work of historical fiction that centers on the happenings at Captain James Pyke’s southern Virginia tobacco plantation, Tall Oaks, beginning in 1791. The two narrative threads follow Lavinia, a seven-year-old Irish orphan working at Tall Oaks as an indentured servant, and Belle, the beautiful young daughter of James and his slave. The novel is told from the first-person perspectives of Belle and Lavinia alternately over 55 chapters, and it addresses the predicaments of women, slaves, and indentured servants in the American South.

When the novel begins, Lavinia is a little girl whose parents are attempting to come to America, but they die aboard James’s ship. Because Lavinia’s parents are unable to pay their fare, James takes Lavinia back to his plantation and puts her in the “kitchen house,” or servant’s quarters for house slaves, as an indentured servant. (James sells Lavinia’s brother into servitude to a blacksmith, and he dies soon after.) At Tall Oaks, Belle oversees Lavinia, and the two eventually form an unbreakable bond.

Belle’s mother died shortly after she was born. Belle’s white grandmother raised her in the big house. She was taught to read and write, and James treated her like his daughter for much of her childhood. However, when James marries Martha, he moves Belle to the kitchen house to become a slave so that Martha won’t be aware of the girl’s kinship to her husband. James still favors Belle, and Martha and their son, Marshall, assume that Belle is James’s mistress. James eventually offers Belle her freedom, but Belle rejects it, choosing to stay close to her home and the fellow slave that she loves, Ben. Ben marries another slave, but he and Belle have an ongoing affair.

Lavinia is neither a natural member of the big house, nor a slave. Being an indentured servant means that she must uphold her servitude, and she must live in the slave housing though she is white. Because of this, she grows to love the slaves as her own family, coming to see the slave Mama Mae as her mother figure. She also grows close to Martha, who has several miscarriages and loses her young daughter, Sally, during an accident on a swing.

When James dies of yellow fever, Martha has a break with reality and goes to a psychiatric hospital, leaving Lavinia with Martha’s sister’s family, the Maddens, in Williamsburg Virginia. There, Lavinia receives an education.

Lavinia is in love with the overseer at Tall Oaks, Will Stephens, but she suspects that he is the father of Belle’s son, Jamie, and rejects his marriage proposal. Instead, she accepts the proposal of an old widower, Mr. Boran. When Mr. Boran attempts to rape Lavinia, James’ and Martha’s son Marshall intervenes. Marshall and Lavinia develop a relationship and soon marry, making Lavinia the mistress of Tall Oaks. The couple has one daughter, Elly. Lavinia soon becomes aware that Marshall, unlike his father, is an abusive, violent man who raped Belle and fathered Jamie. Throughout their marriage, Marshall consistently rapes one of the slaves, fathering two children.

Marshall’s violence may stem from his childhood: His father, James, was never present, and his mother, Martha, was always on laudanum. Mama Mae was the only maternal figure in his life. When Marshall is sexually abused by his tutor, Ben murders the tutor, and the other slaves help cover it up. Still, Marshall grows up hating his slaves and abusing them.

At the end of the novel, Marshall attempts to sell the slaves, and Lavinia hatches a plot to intervene. While an altercation is taking place, Mama Mae reveals that Belle is Marshall’s sister, and Marshall lynches Mamma Mae. Jamie shoots his father, ending Marshall’s reign of terror. Lavinia tries to take the rap for Jamie but later blames Marshall’s death on Uncle Jacob, a slave who she believes is dead.

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