“It is the only home I remember.”

kitchenhouseThe Brown Baggers met on November 15 to discuss The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.

The story takes place in the late 1700s at Tall Oaks, a tobacco plantation in Virginia and spans several years. The book has two narrators, including Lavinia, an Irish immigrant and Belle, the plantation owner’s illegitimate black daughter. Lavinia, was a young child sailing to America with her family when her parents died en route. The captain of the ship, who is the owner of Tall Oaks, takes Lavinia to live on his plantation as an indentured servant. Lavinia stays with Belle in the kitchen house and Belle shows her how to cook and clean.

Lavinia becomes an adopted part of the slave family that works in the “big house” instead of the fields.  Here she is shown love and affection, but as she grows up Lavinia is torn between her adopted family and the captain’s family, who she also cares about. Belle faces multiple challenges throughout the story, including how her father does not tell his white family that Belle is his daughter.

The book focuses on the relationship between the slaves who work in the big house or kitchen house and the family who lives in the big house and owns the slaves. There were a few themes in the novel, including family, Women’s rights, and race relations particularly as related to the order of society and the plantation.

The Brown Baggers generally liked the novel. Some felt that the writing was more simplistic than last month’s selection, H is for Hawk,  but reviewers described Grissom’s writing as “prose-like.”

One issue that readers had, was that it felt like there were too many characters to keep straight, and having a chart listing characters in the front of the book would have been helpful. It was also noted that much of the book was historically accurate and well-researched.

A few Brown Baggers thought the plot was too contrived. And, many agreed that the last third of the book was the weakest- it seemed like the author needed to wrap things up and did so in a hurry.

The group also discussed Miss Martha and later Lavinia’s frequent use of opium/laudanum and how during that time in history it was a way to cope and sedate feelings of isolation and depression. The group also discussed slavery, particularly talking about how Belle didn’t want to leave to go up north and how the author was telling the story through her own lens of whiteness. Overall, even though nothing good happens throughout the story, it was still an interesting read.

About the Book:
From Kirkus Reviews
From Quill and Quire
Author’s follow up book/sequel: Glory Over Everything

Other Titles Mentioned:
The Price of a Child by Lorene Cary
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

Join us on Thursday, December 20 at noon to vote on upcoming titles- be sure to bring a few titles to recommend.

“Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.”

hisforhawkBrown Baggers met at Central on October 18 to discuss the memoir H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Published in 2014, H is for Hawk is part hawk training manual and part dissection of grief. A lifetime falconer, Macdonald decides to try training a much more difficult, larger, and stronger goshawk after her father suddenly dies. She reflects on her modern day experience through the lens of author T. H. White, who recounted his attempt in the book The Goshawk.

Readers really enjoyed Macdonald’s writing style. They found it beautiful and evocative, admiring how she seemed to meditate on each subject and the expert way she wove all of them together. Those who had listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, founding it equally compelling.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, readers found, was Macdonald’s examination of the feral in humans and the humanity in animals. The hawk she trained, Mabel, led her to a wild place deep in her grief but also led her back to her human self in the end. Readers who had no interest in birding, falconry, or hawks found themselves enthralled by the story despite its naturalist themes – a testament to her skill as a writer.

Some felt the process of training hawks was too violent and controlling, especially when hawks no longer serve a purpose of acquiring food for their handlers. Readers discussed whether it was necessary for the author to exert control over another animal to feel in control herself, after the loss of her father.

The sheer social isolation of the author was also discussed, as was the varying depth and experience of grief depending on the individual. While the prose makes it seem like she was completely without social contact while raising the hawk, she does have family, friends, and a professional and falconry community that kept her tethered while she grieved.

Brown Baggers will meet again on November 15 at noon to discuss The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.

Other titles mentioned:
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
The Once and Future King by T. H. White (and other works)

More information:
Interview with author
Second interview
Author bio
PBS documentary (which Central is showing on 10/25 at 7pm)
National Geographic article about falconry in the U.A.E.
Information on falconry

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”

handmaids taleThe Brown Baggers gathered on September 20 to discuss The Handmaid’s Tale by award-winning author Margaret Atwood just in time for Banned Books Week. According to the American Library Association, The Handmaid’s Tale has been one of the “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books” since 1990.

The novel is told by Offred- her real name is unknown. She is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian state that has replaced the United States of America. In this future there are dangerously low reproduction rates, so Handmaids are assigned to bear children for elite couples that can’t conceive. Offred’s freedom, and the freedom of all women, is completely restricted- women aren’t allowed to have jobs, own property, or have money. Offred tells the story of her life, sometimes through flashbacks.

The Brown Baggers loved this dystopian novel- and also hated it. The group was divided on the book- some thought it was thought-provoking and really enjoyed how the messages in the book were portrayed. But others found it difficult to read and even upsetting.

Some readers mentioned that the caste system in Gilead was similar to other caste systems (past and present) around the world. Colors were referenced throughout the novel, and readers quickly picked up on the meanings of colors that the women in the book were forced to wear. Some also mentioned that there was a lot of reporting and spying on neighbors depicted in the novel and thought this was very reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

Most Brown Baggers agreed that they like the character Moira- who was Offred’s best friend and had a fiery, strong personality, and it was sad that we did not find out her fate. Other readers did not like the ending of the book because it was so ambiguous, but some didn’t mind this. Overall, most felt that the book was interesting and made for a great discussion!

The Brown Baggers will discuss H is for Hawk on October 18 at 12pm.

More Information:
Article about Atwood from the New Yorker
Review from the Washington Post (from 1986)

Titles mentioned:
Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Children of Men by P.D. James
Pure by Linda Kay Kline
1984 by George Orwell
Educated by Tara Westover