I’d been hearing about this book for awhile, so it was good to finally get to read it. Set in the late 1790s-early 1800s in Virginia, this novel explores slavery from an unusual perspective. The main character, Lavinia, is a white girl, an Irish orphan who is raised among the slaves of Captain Pyke, the owner of Tall Oaks plantation. Because of her status both as an orphan and an indentured servant, she sees the black slaves with whom she lives as her family, calling Mae and George “Mama” and “Papa,” and thinking of the twins Fanny and Beattie as her sisters. Yet the colour of her skin means that as she grows older, the Pyke family begins to see Lavinia as being more like one of them, and opportunities begin to open for her that are closed to the people she thinks of as her family.
This novel does what seemed to me to be a really good job of exploring the complicated dynamics of plantation slaves and their masters through the eyes of someone who is both an insider and an outsider in both the black and white worlds. Complicating these dynamics, and well explored in the book, is the fact that skin colour is not actually a reliable way to distinguish between these people, as so many of the slaves were in fact more than half-white as a result of multiple generations of master-slave rape. Many of the women in the novel are forced to accept that bearing the master’s babies, and seeing those children — in some cases as “white” as their fathers — raised as slaves, is simply part of the burden of slavery. What really makes the difference is not the actual colour of a person’s skin but whether he or she is designated “white” or “Negro” by society. The complex web of a biological family in which some members of the family own others as property is well explored here.
This book did have its drawbacks — I found the writing style a little too straightforward sometimes, in much the same way as I’ve complained about Ken Follett’s writing: everything on the table and not enough subtlety in dialogue or character development. At least one major choice by a character has a huge impact on the plot and doesn’t seem to me to be in character or sufficiently well motivated, and the ending was resolved a bit too neatly for my liking. But these are largely matters of personal taste, and the novel’s success makes it clear that many, many readers did not find these things to be a problem at all. Certainly if you’re interested in a white writer’s view of slavery through a unique character perspective, you will want to pick up The Kitchen House.