Thursday, December 27, 2012

Book 34: The Kitchen House

I feel like I'd looked at this novel and put it back down at least a dozen time over the past year during Barnes and Noble visits.  I guess I felt like it would probably be a good book, but given the subject matter, I also may have felt that it would be retreading familiar territory.  One could argue that telling the novel from the perspective of the Irish indentured servant orphan would put a fresh spin on things but instead it made me think "oh look, another novel about slavery told from the white person's perspective."  I really enjoyed the first half of the novel, while I became very disappointed and irritated with the turn Lavinia's character took in the later half.  I liked most of the characters, though many could fit into certain stereotypes and stock roles.  With one exception, people tend to be good or bad with very little grey.
The novel alternates between Lavinia, the Irish white girl, and Belle, a house slave and daughter of the master, as the narrators, though Belle's chapters are only two or three pages usually, while Lavinia's are much longer.  After Lavinia's parents die on the passage from Ireland to America, Lavinia is separated from her parents, and the man that had the contract for her parents' indentured service takes her and places her in the kitchen house of his plantation.  She basically becomes part of a black family but as she gets older, her skin color starts drawing her more attention from the members of the big house.  Lavinia is intelligent, and the lady of the house takes a certain amount of interest in her, eventually taking her to Philadelphia to live with her sister and niece.  Since Lavinia is a link to his childhood and his home, Marshall, the plantation owner's son who will become the master once he is of a age, takes a certain amount of interest in Lavinia.
Overall, the novel started out good but there were quite a few issues that could have been resolved if the characters had simply talked to each other.  Due to a certain amount of innocence and naivete on Lavinia's part, she doesn't realize a rather crucial piece of information regarding Marshal, Belle and another love interest until almost the end of the novel.  A simple conversation with most of the people in the novel could have cleared it right up.  Another problem is that Lavinia simply doesn't understand the racial issues of the time or her surroundings, and her desire to still treat her black family as family ends up drawing scrutiny on them.  Instead of learning to use her position to help others, she relies on them, lashes out at others, and basically gives up for a large part of the novel.  She was in a bad situation but the few decisions she does make in those times are irritatingly bad, putting others at risk for her.  Another part of the story that is never completely explained is Belle's position on the plantation.  All the slaves know that she is the captain's daughter, but for some reason his wife and his son Marshall believe that Belle is his mistress, resulting in quite a bit of tension and ill treatment for Belle.  I honestly don't know if her treatment would have been worse if they had known that she was his daughter rather than his mistress but it certainly never made sense to me why this misconception was never cleared up, since it certainly would have saved his wife some grief (certainly, I think for the wife knowing someone had a daughter from before they met you would be more bearable than believing they were cheating on you during the marriage).
While for the most part, the bad characters are bad (drunks, child abusers, misogynists) and the good characters are good, Marshall had the potential to be a more complex character.  He certainly had many bad traits, but as the novel progresses it is easy to see how he fell under the bad influences he did, partially due to how his parents neglected him.  Unfortunately by the end, he, too, becomes just stereotypically bad and there is no real opportunity to see anything more complex.  The novel certainly had a promising start, but the last half wasn't nearly as good as the novel deteriorates into a stereotypical soap opera, with the evil husband, the abusive overseer, the crazy Southern woman, and the opium abusing wife.  It's not that I expect novels to have happy endings, but when all the bad things ever happen in a novel, it can become melodramatic.  In this case it certainly took away from the novel because I had a hard time reconciling the Lavinia of the first half of the novel with the one of the second half.

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