The Kitchen House
Winter 2011 Reading Group List
— Susan Richmond, Inklings Bookshop, Yakima, WA
View the List
Orphaned during her passage from Ireland, young, white Lavinia arrives on the steps of the kitchen house and is placed, as an indentured servant, under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate slave daughter. Lavinia learns to cook, clean, and serve food, while guided by the quiet strength and love of her new family.
In time, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, caring for the master’s opium-addicted wife and befriending his dangerous yet protective son. She attempts to straddle the worlds of the kitchen and big house, but her skin color will forever set her apart from Belle and the other slaves.
Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds.
Praise For The Kitchen House: A Novel…
— Alice Walker
“A touching tale of oppressed women, black and white . . . [This novel] about love, survival, friendship, and loss in the antebellum South should not be missed.”
— The Boston Globe
"Forget Gone with the Wind . . . a story that grabs the reader and demands to be devoured. Wow."
— MInneapolis Star-Tribune
“To say Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House is a page-turner wouldn’t do it justice . . . Grissom breaks away from the gate at a fast clip, the reader hanging on for the ride.”
— Durham Herald-Sun
“Tension lurks everywhere, propelling the story forward [and] ample amounts of drama . . . Captivates with its message of right and wrong, family, and hope.”
— Sacramento/San Francisco Book Review
“The Kitchen House combines a history lesson with a compulsively readable melodrama.’
— Wilmington Star-News
“Out of the ordinary.”
— Romantic Times Book Review
“[Grissom’s] . . . debut twists the conventions of the antebellum novel. . . . Provides a trove of tension and grit, while the many nefarious doings will keep readers hooked to the twisted, yet hopeful, conclusion.”
— Publishers Weekly
“[A] pulse-quickening debut.”
— Kirkus Reviews
“A gripping tale of the South during the days of slavery. . . . Kathleen Grissom’s first novel explores the well-known side of the dark world of slavery as well as the not-so-well-known world of white slavery, or indentured servitude. The book is written in a manner that is fast-paced and action packed, making it difficult to put down.”
“You will be thrilled by this intimate and surprising story that connects us with an unexpected corner of our history. Kathleen Grissom gives us a new and unforgettable perspective on slavery and families and human ties in the Old South, exploring the deepest mysteries of the past that help define who we are to this day.”
— Robert Morgan, bestselling author of the Oprah Book Club selection Gap Creek
“Kathleen Grissom peers into the plantation romance through the eyes of a white indentured servant inhabiting the limbo land between slavery and freedom, providing a tale that provokes new empathy for all working and longing in The Kitchen House.”
— Alice Randall, author of The Wind Done Gone and Rebel Yell
“This book was fantastic. It was the wow book that I have been waiting for all year.”
“With its quick pace and well-drawn cast, The Kitchen House became one of only two books so far (the other being The Fellowship of the Ring) to catch such hold of me that I found myself sneaking it at work. . . . I found The Kitchen House to be a powerful, gripping debut novel that gives a real human face to the tragedies of yesterday that continue to trouble us today.”
“Once you get involved in the story of Lavinia and Belle you will not want to put this book down. I enjoyed this book very much and I highly recommend it. Don’t read it too fast. You don’t want to miss one morsel of this book.”
“This turned out to be exactly the book I needed to get me back into the reading groove. . . . The writing flowed so seamlessly that I can’t believe that this is Grissom’s first novel.”
“Unique and intriguing.”
“The endearing characters ingratiate themselves in your heart. . . . I most definitely recommend this book.”
Atria Books, 9781439153666, 384pp.
Publication Date: February 2, 2010
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
Why do you think the author chose to tell the story through two narrators? How are Lavinia’s observations and judgments different from Belle’s? Does this story belong to one more than the other? If you could choose another character to narrate the novel, who would it be?
One of the novel’s themes is history repeating itself. Another theme is isolation. Select scenes from The Kitchen House that depict each theme and discuss. Are there scenes in which the two themes intersect?
“Mae knows that her eldest daughter consorts with my husband. . . Almost from the beginning, I suspected their secrets” (page 107). Why does the captain keep Belle’s true identity a secret from his wife and children? Do you think the truth would have been a relief to his family or torn them further apart? At what point does keeping this secret turn tragic?
Discuss the significance of birds and bird nests in the novel. What or who do they symbolize? What other symbols support the novel?
“When I saw their hunger I was struck with a deep familiarity and turned away, my mind anxious to keep at bay memories it was not yet ready to recall” (page 24). Consider Lavinia’s history. Do you think the captain saved her life by bringing her to America as an indentured servant? Or do you think it was a fate worse than the one she would have faced in Ireland? Discuss the difference between slavery and indentured servitude.
Marshall is a complicated character. At times, he is kind and protective; other times, he is a violent monster. What is the secret that Marshall is forced to keep? Is he to blame for what happened to Sally? Why do you think Marshall was loyal to Rankin, who was a conspirator with Mr. Waters?
I grew convinced that if she saw me, she would become well again (page 188). Why does Lavinia feel that her presence would help Miss Martha? Describe their relationship. If Lavinia is nurtured by Mama and Belle, why does she need Miss Martha’s attention? Is the relationship one-sided, or does Miss Martha care for Lavinia in return?
“Fortunately, making myself amenable was not foreign to me, as I had lived this way for much of my life” (page 233). Do you think this attribute of Lavinia saves or endangers her life? Give examples for both.
Describe the relationship between Ben’s wife, Lucy, and Belle. How does it evolve throughout the novel? Is it difficult for you to understand their friendship? Why or why not?
“I was as enslaved as all the others” (page 300). Do you think this statement by Lavinia is fair? Is her position equivalent to those of the slaves? What freedom does she have that the slaves do not? What burdens does her race put upon her?