The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
As Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker writes on the dustjacket of Kathleen Grissom's new book, The Kitchen House: "This novel, like The Help, does important work: it factors in the experience of not only African-Americans under enslavement, but also of poor white Europeans who, during the same period of American history, were often indentured."
And so the book, which moves through two generations, opens with the story of 7-year-old Lavinia, a child so traumatised she can't speak. It is 1791. Her parents have died on the trip from Ireland to the southern state of Virginia. Little Lavinia is so scared of the strange black people around her she can't eat, talk or even remember her name.
Gradually the society of this Southern tobacco plantation, in which Lavinia finds herself, begins to take shape. Even though she is white, she would have been sold into indentured servitude - if she'd been well enough. Her brothers had been sold into servitude already.
Instead, the captain of the ship, who also owns a tobacco plantation, takes her to the Kitchen House, where his black slaves nurse her back to health. The little girl soon figures out that the Kitchen House is the comforting place to be on this bewildering plantation. Warm and cosy, it's where the black women nurse their babies and look after their infants. She's not so keen on the family cabins and, further away, the primitive quarters where the lowest slaves stay. Or even the Big House on the hill where the captain lives with his wife and family.
The other narrator of this long, satisfying book is Belle, the beautiful half-black daughter of the captain. Until she was 7, and the captain was unmarried and living with his mother, Belle was brought up in the Big House by her grandma. As she puts it, Grandma said, "There's no reason not to know how to act, just because I'm half-negro ... she shows me how to use a napkin, to sit up straight. She even shows me how to read and write."
But when Grandma dies, the captain takes a wife and Belle is banished to the Kitchen House where, from then on, she's the one waiting on tables at the Big House. The captain's new wife, Martha, is 20 years his junior and a city girl. At the beginning she has a baby every year, but most of them die, except son Marshall and daughter Sally. Meanwhile, their mother gradually slides into a drug-fuelled haze. Part of Martha's problem is that she worries about the captain's obvious attachment to Belle.
Against this background are the barely hidden horrors: Martha's loneliness, which she assuages with "black drops", washed down with liquor; the black teenage girls used by white men in power. And, for the slaves, the threat of beatings, starvation, malnutrition - and worse, being torn away from their families and sold on a whim. The other cruel side is the fate of the half-white sons and daughters, including Belle, born to the slaves. They live in a half-world.
This is Grissom's first novel and she digs deep into the secret corners of some of the worst atrocities of slavery, both for blacks and indentured whites.
A former nurse, she spent 10 years researching and writing the book after she and her husband moved to an old tobacco plantation tavern in Virginia. Her interest in the plantation's past was stimulated by a map of their homestead, showing a place called Negro Hill, which local historians suggested probably represented a tragedy. And Grissom, by combining in-depth research with her own imagination, came up with this valuable, and highly readable, novel.
There are some shades of a fairy tale in here, along with the atrocities.
Sometimes her plot is too predictably signalled. On the other hand, her writing is evocative. The day-to-day details of slaves, women and children living harassed lives under the rule of white plantation owners of the 1790s, is so believable you can almost smell the slaughter on hog-killing day.