Grissom has crafted quite a riveting story of slavery in 18th-century Virginia, where an unlikely girl, Irish immigrant Lavinia, is brought to the kitchen house at Tall Oaks plantation by Captain Pyke. The Captain purchases Lavinia at auction, delivering her with the supplies on one of his infrequent returns home to the plantation. Although the house slaves have never seen a white child in such a dilemma, it is actually not uncommon for Irish immigrants to be indentured when they cannot pay for passage on board ships sailing from Ireland.
In Laviniaís case, the death of her parents on the passage has necessitated her sale and the terms of her indenture. But, at only seven, Lavinia is mute with shock, unable to remember anything of her past or the tragedy that befell her family. Slotted into the staff of the kitchen house, the girl is skittish, ill and terrified by the unfamiliar black faces that suddenly define her world: ďHaving lived through her own unspeakable tragedies, she knew that words were unnecessary.Ē
Grissomís tale is especially poignant from the perspective of two protagonists: Lavinia and Belle, the Captainís daughter, who remains a constant source of rage to his wife, Martha. Increasingly dependent upon opium since the death of two of her children at birth, Miss Martha is unpredictable and volatile at the best of times. Belle takes pains to remain out of the womanís sight. When the Captain is away, which is most of the time, Martha secludes herself in her room in a predictable stupor as the servants care for her children, Sally and Marshall.
As Lavinia adapts to her new situation, she forms certain attachments, the kitchen help her new family - especially Mama, who intuitively understands the childís terrors. The kitchen becomes her world, and like Belle, Lavinia never wants to leave the security of this place. Unfortunately, impermanence is the nature of their existence, subject to the whims of their owners and overseers; the distant promise of freedom is never really an option. What develops as circumstances change is a harrowing tale of wrath against the helpless, Mama, Belle and the others at the mercy of the white folks, especially the Captainís cruel overseer, Rankin.
As Grissom builds an intricate plot around the affections of the kitchen house and Laviniaís attachment to those who have become her family, events move beyond her control. There is no denying the reality of Laviniaís color, much as she would like to, or the opportunity it provides. Because of the tragedies of her young life and her limited expectations of the world, Laviniaís marriage to the Captainís son Marshall years later ushers in a whole new set of problems, not the least of which is Marshallís cruelty and vindictiveness, especially the formative years spent under Rankinís influence, terrifying all, including his wife.
Mama and her children endure, as do the strong, quiet men who remain helpless in the face of those who own them, but the message is clear. Grissom has perfectly captured the strength of those who inhabit the kitchen house, their dreams, heartbreak and capacity to endure the unendurable. Laviniaís story, while it may seems exceptional, is one of many, the unsuspecting immigrants falling into the trap of slavery and sentenced to years of labor. For them, however, there is an end to their suffering. For the slaves, there is not.