(Gently) Pushing Buttons

Thursday, May 5, 2011

I'm used to being the OBITR (Only Black In The Room). It happens all the time. Depending on the situation, occasionally I take my position very seriously and use it to raise awareness of an issue, challenge a perception or present another way of thinking. I feel as though I've been talking about race a lot lately, but it's been all around me in posts, books I've read and discussions I've had so it's been on my mind a lot. Most recently I had to educate my book club friends a little bit. [warning: book spoiler alerts]

The last title we read for book club was The Hunger Games. In the first part of the evening while we having dinner, almost everyone was talking about the books (most went on to read the other two right away). The comments were all about how much they loved the series and were excited to hear all the casting news for the movie. After dinner we talked about the current book, The Kitchen House.

All of us loved this book, too. It's set on a tobacco plantation in the south. The story is told through two narrators. One is Lavinia, an Irish indentured servant whose parents die on the trip over from Ireland. Her brother is sold to a different owner and she lives the first years of her life on the plantation with the slaves. The other narrator, Belle, is one of the slaves on the plantation. She works in the kitchen house and her connection to the plantation owner causes problems for everyone throughout most of the book. 

As the conversation went on, someone said they typically don't like to read books with a lot of tragedy and violence in them and said she was glad the author, Kathleen Grissom, didn't get too descriptive with the treatment of the slaves because she probably wouldn't have liked the book as much. Many others agreed.

Now, if you've read The Hunger Games series, you might be shaking your head. If you haven't read them, let me explain the premise: Every year, the ruling class of a post apocalyptic dystopian society, The Capitol, hosts The Hunger Games. The games are a punishment for the lower classes' previous attempted rebellion.  The Capitol creates an outdoor arena with all types of hazards and then forces 24 children chosen at random to fight to the death in the arena on live TV.

I had to take a moment because it struck me as odd. In The Hunger Games, half the contests die at each others' hands in the first few moment's of the games. Through the rest of the book there are poisonous plants, wasps whose venom either kills or brings on hallucinations, knives to the back, rocks to the skull and death by spear. And that's only in the first half of the first book!

So, reading about teenagers killing each other or dying violently as sport for the rich is fine, but slaves being whipped, burned or hung is just too much? As OBITR, I felt I needed to (gently) point out what I saw as a hypocrisy*. I said I was glad Grissom didn't try to clean up what happened to slaves. 

"I think it's sad authors have to dumb down the type of violence blacks experienced at the hands of their owners and make it more palatable in order for people to want to educate themselves about the time period."

Yep, I went there.

I can only presume the woman who made the original statement was thinking that Hunger Games is pure fiction, whereas The Kitchen House is fiction based in factual events. For the record she also said she couldn't watch Schindler's List for the same reason. I guess I just can't imagine avoiding certain topics because of their truth. In my mind, it's the truthfulness that leads to empathy. I'm not Jewish, but the little I know about the Holocaust made me want to learn more about the difference between Judaism and Catholicism. 

In my opinion, The Kitchen House isn't overly graphic. I think the events in the book are part of the characters' truth, and the truth is they were slaves on a plantation. Bad (beyond horrible) things happened to slaves on plantations. To ignore that, to leave it out of the story wouldn't have been an accurate representation of the south during that time.

My fellow book club members' response struck me as the literary equivalent of sticking her fingers in her ears. "La, la, la, la I can't hear you." Which everyone has a right to do.

My statement was well received. Not that I care about that too much but I don't want to make book club awkward. I enjoy my time there but don't want to be "that person" who turns every conversation into controversy. I can only hope I gave everyone something to think about. Omitting details or downplaying them doesn't make them any less true.

Do you feel the same way as my club member about the books you read? Is there such a thing as too real?

*Hypocrisy is probably too strong of a word but I couldn't think of better one. Photo from Google Images


  1. I don't know you... but I'd like to. Being Jewish, I know exactly how you feel. People who feel that the reality of the Holocaust or Slavery or whatever persecution is popular at the moment is too graphic... bullshit! That's life. That's history. If we don't talk about it and remember it, then aren't we deemed to repeat it? I have had a book club for 7 years and I am the only Jewish person - it is hard to read certain books and have my history not influence my opinions. I try to be sensitive to everyone's feelings but to dumb down certain topics makes me crazy. FYI... Loved the Hunger Games. Haven't read The Kitchen House but I'm going to put it on my TBR list.

  2. Nothing is ever too real for me.

    I loved the entire Hunger Games series and I am putting The Kitchen House on my list. Have you read Wench? I thought that was quite painful to contemplate--it definitely made you feel the pain the emotional pain related to their children that slaves endured.

  3. I agree with you. In order to learn the lessons that history has taught us, we have to know about them first, in detail, even if it makes us uncomfortable. How else will we know what to change? I get upset and squirmy when I'm exposed to terrible things, but it makes me a better, more thoughtful, person. At least I hope so!

  4. It sounds like you did a great job shining light in the dark! I haven't read either book, but I would much rather read the one based on history -- and therefore, understand what real people experienced and how to avoid history repeating itself than that creepy, futuristic, Lord-I-hope-we-aren't-becoming-that, story.

    In homeschooling my children, I've filled so many gaps in my education. I want them to know, I want to know the truth, so we can be a different people in the future.

  5. I came to this blog in a search for some thoughts of African Americans about The Kitchen House - I always find it interesting to get a different perspective on books by white people that describe the African American experience. Didn't really find what I was looking for, but I've got to say I wonder if your book club members know about this blog. Alluding to them with the picture of a child from the British royal family holding her hands over her ears?! Yikes.


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