How I came to write The Kitchen House
A few years ago, my husband and I restored an old plantation tavern in Virginia. While researching its past I found an old map on which, near our home, was a notation, ‘Negro Hill.’ Unable to determine the story of its origin, local historians suggested that it most likely suggested a tragedy. For months it played on my mind. Each morning, I walked across our land to go down to the stream where I would meditate, and on my return trip I faced the direction of Negro Hill and wondered aloud what had happened there?
Finally, one morning when I returned from that walk, I sat down to do my daily journaling. What happened next left me baffled. In my mind’s eye I saw a scene play out as clear as a movie. I began to write, and the words flew onto the paper. I followed in the footsteps of a terrified little white girl, running up the hill behind her frantic mother. When they reached the top, through their eyes, I saw a black woman hanging from the limb of a large oak tree. I set my pencil down, appalled at the story line. I had written the prologue to The Kitchen House. Although fascinated by antebellum history, I abhorred the thought of slavery and had always shied away from the subject. Quickly I slipped the writing in my desk drawer, determined to forget about it.
Some weeks later, during a conversation with my father, I learned that an acquaintance of his had traced his ancestry back to Ireland. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, this man’s Irish ancestors had come over on board ship and, on that journey, both of the parents had died. Two brothers had survived, along with their little sister. They were able to track what had happened to the boys but they couldn’t find any trace of the little girl. As my father related the story, a deep chill ran through me. In my deepest core, I knew immediately what had happened to her. She was brought home to the Captain’s plantation as an indentured servant in Southside Virginia, and put to work in the kitchen house with the kitchen slaves. She awaited me in my desk drawer.
I began to do the research. I visited the many plantations in the area, particularly Prestwould Plantation. I studied slave narratives from that time period and interviewed African American people whose ancestors had been slaves. I spent hours in local libraries, the Black History Museum, the Virginia Historical Society and Poplar Forest. I visited Colonial Williamsburg many times over. Finally I began to write. Each day more of the story unfolded and when I finished, often emotionally spent, I was left to wonder what the following day would bring. The only time the work came to a standstill was when the characters took me to an event or to a place where I had not yet done my research.
I tried on a number of occasions to change some of the events (those that I found profoundly disturbing) but the story would stop when I did that, so I forged ahead to write what was revealed.
I am forever grateful to the souls who gifted me with their sharing. I can only hope I have served them well.