The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

This was our latest book club choice.

Published: 2010

Genre: historical fiction

Length: 369 pages

Setting: Virginia, late 1700s/early 1800s

Summary: Lavinia is indentured at age six when her parents die on the boat to America. Because the mistress of the house, Miss Martha, spends most of her time in a laudanum haze, Lavinia is raised by the house slaves and taught to work in the big house. She is happy, although the reader can see many problems in the household (the Captain is never home, Miss Martha is addicted to laudanum, Marshall, the son, is being abused by his tutor, and he accidentally kills his little sister, the overseer is abusing the field slaves, and so on). When the Captain dies, Miss Martha is put in an institution by her sister and Lavinia accompanies her to Philadelphia. Marshall eventually marries Lavinia and takes her back to Tall Oaks. Lavinia thinks this is the perfect ending to her story. She didn’t realize Marshall would expect her to be a lady and not fraternize with the slaves, who she sees as family. Things keep getting worse for Lavinia and the slaves, mostly because of Marshall’s destructive behavior, until the house is burned and Marshall is killed by his black son.

Final thoughts: Poor Lavinia – her life was just a mess. She managed to find family, but it was among the slaves. The color barrier at the time meant those relationships were doomed to become problematic once she got older. She was a very passive characters, which puts her at odds with the modern sensibilities. The problem was, she really had no say in what happened in her life, which may give her some excuse for her attitude. But, when you compare her to the black house servants, she gets the worst of that comparison. The slaves had even less agency and control than Lavinia, and yet it seemed that in every occasion, they chose how to respond. Typically it was to make the best of a bad situation. Yes, there were times when they could do nothing, but they took every opportunity to act to improve their lives, strengthen their relationships, and take care of those who needed help. When Lavinia was put in a bad situation, married to Marshall, she just took herself out of the situation and started taking laudanum. Even though Marshall got his comeuppance, the tirade of problems up to that point make this quite a depressing book.

Title comes from: Lavinia was raised in the kitchen house, a structure where the meals were cooked that was physically separate from the main house to reduce the threat of fire.

Reading challenges fulfilled: book #33 for the year, and a K in my Title Alphabet Challenge

If you’re interested in purchasing the book, you can click on the cover image to follow an Amazon affiliate link to the book and thanks for supporting my blog!


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