The Kitchen House
1791: A traumatised seven-year-old Irish orphan, Lavinia, is indentured to the owner of a tobacco plantation in Virginia. She is white, but is set to work alongside the slaves in the kitchen house. Lavinia is weak, and her care is entrusted to Belle, the illegitimate daughter of the master of the house. The mistress is an opium addict through her regular medication. Lavinia’s new adoptive family are black. When she is separated from them and sent to the big house, because of her white skin, her sense of family and loyalties are tested to the point where lives are endangered.
This debut novel deserves to be a breakout success. The background has been thoroughly researched, and the empathy we feel for the characters as we follow Lavinia’s and Belle’s stories, in alternating chapters, shows two very different perspectives on the same events. Belle is fully aware of her surroundings and limitations and wants to cling to her family, dangerous though that is. Lavinia keeps a child-like (albeit an insecure one) view of events around her, until she has no choice but to see them in their complete ugliness.
The story does not shy away from the cruelty both the slaves and indentured servants suffered, but nor does it linger. The focus is not on the plantation workers, but the intricate relationships between the kitchen and the big house. Instead, it deals with the human aspects of coping and desperately surviving events that happened there. There could have been a number of endings for Lavinia, but I think this one offered hope – but it came at a very high price.