Orphaned during her passage from Ireland, young, white Lavinia arrives on the steps of the kitchen house and is placed, as an indentured servant, under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate slave daughter. Lavinia learns to cook, clean, and serve food, while guided by the quiet strength and love of her new family.
In time, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, caring for the master’s opium-addicted wife and befriending his dangerous yet protective son. She attempts to straddle the worlds of the kitchen and big house, but her skin color will forever set her apart from Belle and the other slaves.
Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds.
Can a book be both beautiful and terrible at the same time?
I think this one comes close.
I was so swept up in the story that I couldn't keep myself from turning the pages. I think that the alternating points of view between Lavinia and Belle gives such a rich and honest look into life at Tall Oaks. You see Lavinia's childlike understanding of the world around her and you get to see how she matures into womanhood. Yet, with Belle's viewpoint, we get to see the real dangers that lurk around every corner and to feel the hopelessness that comes from being caught in the middle of secrets a child cannot understand.
While I honestly was swept away in the story, it was nonetheless difficult to read in more than one place. The brutality of humans toward one another is hard to digest. At least for me. I couldn't stop...but at the same time, I didn't want to read of any more heartbreak or cruelty.
After writing this brief synopsis of my thoughts and before our book club meeting on Monday, I listened to a podcast where the author was the guest. She shared a quote that so beautifully sums up this book and my thoughts on it.
"Man's inhumanity towards man." And I might add, towards women.
To this point our book club has limited ourselves to titles of Christian Fiction. I was a bit worried how our ladies might respond to this story; which while disturbing, is not graphic. I think it walked that thin line very well as everyone loved this story so much that they voted to read the sequel, Glory Over Everything, for our next meeting. They just couldn't leave this story behind yet.
There was only one real complaint against the seemingly one dimensional, cookie cutter portrayals of slaves...but as I've thought that through a bit more, we get a one dimensional view of most everyone except the two narrators.
The story begins with a heart-thumping run through the woods that ends at a tall oak tree with a body hanging from it...and it never really lets up from there. It is the story of secrets that tear at the fabric of a family, some natural born and some chosen...and how words unspoken can create just as much havoc as those spoken in haste or anger. You will cheer the characters on...and you will want to smack them upside the head. Sometimes both while reading the same paragraph. At one point I even thought about throwing my book across the room, but I didn't want to have to walk over to pick it up and find my page again.
We enjoyed a wonderful Southern potluck dinner of roasted pork, turnip greens, beans, cornbread and peach cobbler with Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream. It was all so delicious that I can hardly wait until next month's meeting.