Published: 2 February 2010
Genre: Historical Fiction
When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family. Orphaned while onboard ship from Ireland, seven-year-old Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master's illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family, though she is set apart from them by her white skin.
Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare, and lives are put at risk.
Lavinia is orphaned when her family die en route to Virginia from Ireland, so Captain James Pyke takes her on as an indentured servant and she is raised in the kitchen house by the family’s slaves.
Lavinia soon becomes attached to her new black family, however as she grows older she begins to realise the colour of her skin sets her apart from Mama Mae and Papa George which means she will have choices in life that they will not. As tragedy after tragedy strikes the Pyke plantation, the fate of the inhabitants, white and black, begins to spiral out of control and Lavinia finds it increasingly difficult to keep her family together.
The premise of The Kitchen House sounded promising when I read a preview, however I’m afraid it turned into a melodramatic mess. When she loses her parents, Lavinia is only seven years old and she is so traumatised when she arrives at the plantation she refuses to eat or speak. After she is placed with the black house slaves, Lavinia is coaxed back to life with their loving care and begins to see herself as part of their family. Apart from a few protests from the odd white person, no one seems to care that a white girl is growing up amongst slaves and it would’ve seemed more appropriate for Lavinia to have been kept in the main house.
The black house slaves vary in character but who could fail to fall in love with Mama Mae who is the matriarch of the family and she welcomes Lavinia with open arms even if she is a little wary of the future. Unfortunately, the story descends far too often into sentimentality as everyone falls in love with Lavinia and treats her like their favourite pet. As life continues on the plantation, there are births, marriages and deaths, as you would expect but the author isn’t content with that and throws in mental health issues, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, murder, and even incest into the mix. No one escapes tragedy on this plantation but it is all too much and by the end of the story I was pretty much numb to it.
The story is told from two viewpoints, Lavinia and Belle, but the chapter lengths are pretty uneven with Lavinia being given the largest share. The problem with Lavinia’s first person narrative is she is a mere child at the start of the book and her recollections come across more as those of an adult. Lavinia is quite naive and many characters make observations of how she sees everything in a childlike way but this does not come across in the narration as Lavinia often knows far too much for her age. It would’ve been better if the earlier chapters had been approached as if the adult Lavinia was looking back on her childhood instead of being told in a straight manner.
The secondary character, Belle, is Captain Pyke’s illegitimate daughter from a boyhood encounter with one of the slaves, although most people are not privy to this information. Belle’s narrative contributions are very short, doing nothing to drive the story forward, and I actually found them disruptive more than anything else. The secrecy around Belle’s parentage is one of the leading plot threads because of the misunderstandings surrounding it and the author relies far too heavily on a lack of communication. I got to the point where I just wanted to scream at the characters to sit down and talk to each other before they made any more bad decisions. A lack of communication is one of my pet hates in novels because it is so unimaginative.
As the tragedy count increases, characters flit in and out of the story when needed but are barely given any motivation for their actions and this gets worse as the plot progresses. Lavinia eventually marries Marshall Pyke, the captain’s son, but he is a broken character due to the sexual abuse he endured from his tutor. The abuse is known to the house servants who try to protect their young master but their concerns are pushed aside by the boy’s father who barely knows what is going on in his own house. We never learn why Waters abused the boy and the slaves eventually take matters into their own hands, an act that leads to Waters being killed and his body hidden on the plantation, and then the whole plot is dropped. Considering how an adult Marshall goes on to become an abusive husband and rapist, the earlier plot is very important to his character development but it is never fully realised.
One of the biggest problems with the writing style is a lot of the events are told rather than shown and this creates a sense of detachment which only increases as the story reaches its conclusion. By the end, I was becoming increasingly bored and frustrated to the point I no longer cared what happened to the characters.