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What’s good and not-so-great about The Kitchen House
I actually enjoyed reading this book a lot more than I expected to, but in the end, I felt a bit like I had eaten too much candy. I enjoyed the story, but overall, The Kitchen House is not a satisfying read.
I do, however, appreciate some things about this story. Most importantly, Grissom attempts to delve into the complex and, let’s be blunt, perverse relationships that result when first, people hold other people as lifelong slaves, and secondly, when they engage in sexual relationships with them and produce children. The mixed emotions and loyalties that result are almost impossible to imagine. Added to that is the isolation that these people lived under…both the families and the slaves, although obviously the family members had more freedom. This story also attempts to show, however, how white females, despite outward shows of luxury, may have been just as entrapped as the slaves who served them.
For me, the biggest problem with this book is that Grissom simply tries to cram too much in. There were several characters whose stories I wanted to know in more detail, but she would wrap up one plot line and go onto another without ever getting to any real depth.
When I got to the end of the book, I realized there was no character with whom I connected, no dynamic character who showed change…and that included the two female characters who narrated the story. I didn’t even get a sense of their voices, even though they spoke for themselves.
I even found the setting confusing even though the book is set in my home region, southern Virginia. The location of the plantation is never exactly clear. At the beginning of the book, this vagueness makes sense because the narrator is a child…except that the voice is (vaguely) supposed to be an adult reflecting back on her life. Certainly an adult would know more about her surroundings, especially given the conclusion of this book.
The other setting is Williamsburg in the early 19th century, and that is almost too well defined…and clearly based on visits to the historical park that is there now rather than in-depth study of the region. I could have written those sections with the knowledge I possess from several visits over the years. The combined effect is strange…again, especially considering the resolution of the story which I don’t want to ruin for you!
While I applaud Grissom’s attempt, I’m not sure she is the one to tell this story. At the very least, there are other points of view that should be considered.
Glory Over Everything is the sequel to The Kitchen House. I read the excerpt in the back of the copy of The Kitchen House that I had, and I was not inspired to go on. Read on for some alternate ideas.
Truth is stranger than fiction…modern nonfiction about American slavery
I can’t think of any aspect of American history in which the real story is actually more shocking than any fictionalized account. Truth is stranger than fiction. The Hemingses of Monticello is the most memorable of these books that I have because first of all, Thomas Jefferson’s decades long affair with Sally Hemings, his slave, is far from the most shocking aspect of this story…the fact is that Sally Hemings was also a blood relative of Jefferson’s late wife. That’s what gets to me.
This book also shows the depth of the damage done by forced illiteracy. Contrary to The Kitchen House, in which several slaves and servants are taught to read, Thomas Jefferson never saw fit to teach the mother of most his of surviving children to read. Throughout this book, Gordon-Reed’s struggle to give Hemings a voice without taking her voice (through her assumptions) is evident and almost became more compelling to me that the primary story.
This book helps me understand even more what you do when you take away literacy. Certainly, in the present, you remove a person’s ability to independently seek out information, but what you also do is silence that person forever.
It may not be as true as it used to be that history written by the victorious, but history is definitely written by the literate.
In a related story, despite George Washington’s relatively enlightened views toward slavery, he and his wife ruthlessly pursued one of their own slaves, Ona Judge, who ran away. The story, Never Caught, is also available in an abridged, “Young Readers” version.
Despite laws enforcing illiteracy for Black people, some did in fact learn how to read and write. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Our Nig are two of the most prominent memoirs by women who describe real-life experiences similar to those of Belle and her family in The Kitchen House.
Classic novels about slavery that became too popular for their own good
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a novel that is considered instrumental in starting the Civil War by illustrating the horrors of slavery. It seems to me that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a victim of its own success. The story has been retold and distorted so many times that few people (or not as many as who should) read it and miss the subtlety of the text and most especially, the nuances of the character Uncle Tom, which have disappeared to many under the gross stereotyping in which an “Uncle Tom” is considered a collaborator.
Dred, Stowe’s other novel about slavery, tells a different tale of a more hardened slave character in a setting similar to parts of Glory over Everything, the companion novel to The Kitchen House.
Gone with the Wind is another novel that suffers from the fact that a distorted version of the story is in the public consciousness since more people have seen the film than read the book. While there’s no question that the book, like the film, presents the White southerner/slave holder’s point of view (and from which Grissom seems to have lifted some scenes of the slaves’ social lives), in the 1000 page novel there is a bit more space for characterizations of the Black characters than their is in the film. One nuanced character, Dilcey, the husband of Pork (the butler) and mother of Prissy, was written out completely, which is a shame.
In 2014, the depiction of slavery in Gone with the Wind was partially rectified with a novel, authorized by the Margaret Mitchell estate, focusing on the character Mammy, called Ruth’s Journey. I’m looking forward to reading it to see what depth this narrative adds to the story.
Read The Kitchen House? What did you think?
What other books do you think are important for understanding the American slave system?
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