Monday, January 4, 2016

"The Kitchen House"
by Kathleen Grissom
I had reservations about choosing this novel.  I was concerned that it might be a stereotypical cruel Southern white /beleaguered plantation slave novel.  If the book were to engage me, it had to offer something unique and it had to be exceptionally well written.  Kathleen Grissom did provide a unique twist to her story, but she began to lose me about half way through the novel.  Her story events were becoming annoyingly convoluted and implausible.  This trend continued, so much so that my empathy for certain characters was quashed by my resentment that a good story rather skillfully crafted had devolved into melodrama.
I enjoyed approximately the first 160 pages.  The white plantation characters seemed believable.  The owner, “the captain,” although short-sighted about certain matters, was not villainous.  His wife, Miss Martha -- who could say she was glad that nobody had been hurt when a fracas between whites and blacks had been averted even though one of the slaves had been whipped -- was also not basically inhumane.  The overseer, Rankin, was a believably sadistic bully that kept the entire slave population on edge.  The major slave characters – all sufficiently different in personality -- were laudable beings.  The author created her cast of characters well.
The unique aspect of the plot was the author’s placement of Lavinia McCarten, an orphaned Irish-born Caucasian child, at the center of the story.  Her parents, to be indentured to service upon their arrival in America, had died en route.  The captain of the vessel, who is the owner the plantation (Tall Oaks) where the story takes place, indentures the seven year old orphan girl to himself and places her under the care of his house and kitchen servants, who raise her as one of their own.  The story that enfolds is told mostly from Lavinia’s viewpoint.  She is a white child whose affections are not initially affected by late 18th Century Virginia White prejudice but must, as she matures, cope with its malevolent consequences.
Two other characters stand out.
Mama Mae is the foundation and soul of the slave population.  She is the most commendable character in the novel.  Early in the story Mama speaks sternly to an independent-minded young daughter. 
“I’m gonna tell you what happens when you say no to a white man.  I watch my own daddy get shot when he saddle up and ride out on a mule to get help for my own sick mama.  She havin’ a baby, cryin’ out for help.  I standin’ right there when that masta say to my daddy to get down from the mule.  When my daddy say, ‘No, I’s going for help,’ that old masta shoot him in the back.  That night all I know to do is keep the flies away when I watch my mama die.” 
We learn that the cruel masta eventually sold Mama to the Captain’s mother, Mrs. Pyke, to be a field slave.  Mama’s hard work and happenstance caused Mrs. Pyke to bring Mama up to the “big house” to feed the baby Belle, the illegitimate child of the Captain’s union with a slave woman who after Belle’s birth died of a fever. 
“I work for Mrs. Pyke like I don’t know what tired mean.  Nothin’ what I won’t do.  … You girls watch me close.  I act like I don’t have no mind of my own, except how to make everybody in the big house happy.  That because I mean to stay up there, and I tryin’ hard to keep you girls with me.”
It is Mama who gets Lavinia to emerge from the trauma of witnessing her parents’ death and burial at sea, her separation from her brother, and her placement among total strangers.   Among other kind acts, Mama makes Lavinia a rag doll like the one Lavinia has stolen from one of Mama’s children.  After Lavinia witnesses the burial of one of Mama’s grandchildren, reminded of her parents’ burial, she commences rocking.
“They say I rocked silently for almost two days.  … I rocked wildly as I clung to the memory of pain, to the memory of my mother.  I couldn’t release it; I would lose [the memory of] her again.”  Mama takes the rocking Lavinia into her lap and begins duplicating her rocking.  “Back and forth she rocked, bringing to the surface the festering poison of the nightmare I had been hiding.”  Lavnia tells Mama that Henry (Mama’s grandson) is “in the water,” that her mother is in the water.  Mama’s responds:
“Abinia, your mama is with the Lawd, just like the baby Henry.  Matter of fact, she be holdin’ baby Henry, and they playin’ together right now.  Listen, you can almost hear them laughin.’  This world is not the only home.  This world is for practice to get things right.  Times, the Lawd say, ‘Nope, that mama, that baby Henry, they too sweet to stay away from Me no more.  I brings them home.’  I know this, Abinia … Mama sayin’ there are times we got to trust the Lawd.” 
Thereafter, Lavinia takes Mama Mae as her mother.  This scene is a good example of the author’s best writing.
The second very prominent character in this book is the captain’s son Marshall.  At the novel’s beginning the captain and his wife, Miss Martha, have two children: Marshall, eleven, and Sally, four.  Soon after Lavinia’s arrival at the plantation, she encounters the two, the boy pushing his sister, seated in a swing hung from the branch of a large oak tree.  They are immediately curious about her.  She is white!  She lives with the slaves!  Later encounters reveal that Sally is a generous, open-hearted child willing to share her toys.  Marshall demonstrates learned prejudice.  As the story progresses, we discover that Marshall views Belle, Lavinia’s immediate mentor, with hatred.  First, Belle is a slave.  Second, Marshall does not know that Belle is his half-sister.  He and his mother – Miss Martha – witnessing the captain’s affection for Belle, believe that Belle is the captain’s lover.  Miss Martha, suffering from deep depression, takes laudanum.  Marshall blames Belle for his mother’s condition.
Later, we meet Mr. Waters, Marshall’s tutor.  We learn that Waters is sexually abusing Marshall.  The slaves know this aw well.  The captain does not.  Marshall suffers terribly from the abuse.  Eventually, he asks his father to be sent away to a school in Williamsburg.  The father refuses, believing that the boy needs to learn discipline.  At this point in the story Marshall is a sympathetic character.  The slave population view him as such.  But Marshall is developing a fierce temper.  Having been sexually abused again, he is standing near the swing with his sister when Lavinia and Mama’s twin girls (Lavinia’s playmates) come upon them.  Sally insists that Marshall push her.  He refuses and heads for the big house.  Seeing Mr. Waters watching them from the house, Sally calls to the tutor.  “‘Mr. Waters, Mr. Waters, … tell Marshall to push me on the swing.’”  Seeing Waters approach, Marshall pushes fiercely.  In response to her calls for him to stop, Marshall pushes each successive time harder.  She falls off the swing and is killed.   Waters blames Ben, one of Mama’s adult children, for the accident.  Rankin, the overseer, and several white men, savagely beat Ben.  They cut off one of his ears in an attempt to force Ben to confess.  Confronted by the captain – after Lavinia has told him what she has seen -- Waters insists that Marshall had told him the lie of whom had been at fault.
Waters becomes even more high-handed.  He abuses Marshall in the privy.  Lavinia sees Waters kicking him.  Marshall is in a dazed condition after Waters has left.  Lavinia runs to the Kitchen House to get help.  Mama’s husband (“Papa”) and Ben take Marshall to his room in the big house and guard the door.  Waters demands entrance.  They refuse to obey him; “‘we stayin’ here with Masta Marshall till the cap’n get home.’”  Waters leaves.  Ben goes into hiding.  Rankin, in league with Waters, looks for Ben.  Waters attempts to force himself on Mama’s eldest daughter Dory.  Ben kills him.  Waters’s body is burned, and its remains are put in the bottom of the privy.
While Rankin is investigating Waters’s disappearance, Marshall and Lavinia have a conversation.  Marshall wants to know why Waters’s room has been cleaned out and where the tutor has gone.  She tells him that Waters has “gone to see the debil.”  He realizes belatedly that she means the “devil.”  “‘Don’t start talking like that,’ he said.  ‘You’re not one of them.’”  He calls the slaves “stupid.”  “‘Not Belle,’ I said, ready to inform him of her reading skills.”  Marshall calls Belle “a yella whore.  … ‘Don’t trust any of them,’ he said.  ‘They’ll turn on you the minute you turn your back …  the ones closest to you.  They’ll kill you when you sleep.’”  Lavinia wants to know who had said that.  “Waters and Rankin,’ he said.  ‘It happens all the time.  They told me about plenty of slaves killing their masters.  You’ve got to learn to control them before they kill all of us.’” 
From this moment on, Marshall is a repugnant character.  During the captain’s time at sea, Marshall and Rankin spend considerable time together.  Rankin turns Marshall into an alcoholic.  The captain, after his return, sends Marshall to Williamsburg to live with his wife’s sister and her lawyer husband and to attend William and Mary College.  The slaves at Tall Oaks worry about the time when the captain dies and Marshall becomes their master.
Eventually, Miss Martha and Lavinia are taken to Williamsburg to live with Martha’s sister’s family, Lavinia to be trained to become a proper Southern lady.  It is at this juncture that I felt the author had begun using her characters as pawns to permit her, eventually, to place Lavinia, at the age of seventeen, mistress of Tall Oaks.   I felt that the events that lead to this occurrence were unacceptably contrived.  To have Lavinia become mistress, the author made her suddenly weak-willed.  Lavinia rationalizes her foolish decisions.  She finds Marshall’s attentions – despite all that she has witnessed about him during her childhood -- acceptable.  Because I no longer respected her, what happens to her after her return to Tall Oaks ceased to matter that much.  Because Lavinia no longer seemed to be a believable character, the events involving her that affected the slave population seemed, consequently, counterfeit.
Nevertheless, Kathleen Grissom demonstrated throughout the novel strong command of narration and dialogue.  Her characterizations, for the most part, are excellent.  Hers was an ambitious undertaking.  She should be commended for that.  Other readers may very well have a different opinion of what I found to be disappointing.