Laurie Boris' The Kitchen Brigade
Dystopian novels have a long and popular history, from classics such as The Time Machine, Brave New World and 1984 to the more modern Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale and Divergent. Some take place in a specific time and place and some are vague or fantasies.
Some dystopian novels use unknown tyrants while others use current US rivals, such as the Chinese, Cubans or Russians. That is the route of The Kitchen Brigade by Laurie Boris, which uses a specific enemy, the Russians and their allies, the Cubans, as the tyrannical rulers who have taken over the eastern part of the US. Its setting is also specific, taking place in the Hudson Valley, where the author lives.
Laurie skillfully places the main scenes are in the kitchen, where main character Valerie, now called Three, with her fellow chefs, including Chef Svetlana, under whom she had previously studied at the Culinary Institute of America creates meals for the general, his staff and visitors. Food is an important focus in the novel. While the kitchen chefs are prisoners, food still provides joy, love and artistry. It is used as payment, as for chef Four, and used horribly, as when the child Tomàs is forced to taste food in case of poisoning.
When I asked Laurie about her main setting, she responded, “I liked the focus of the kitchen because of the universality and the comfort it creates. It transcends language and cultural differences. It’s a refuge as well as a hotbed of conflict. It just appealed to me on so many levels. The seed of it began with a flash fiction story I wrote about a group of women imprisoned in a warlord’s kitchen, plotting to poison their captors.”
Valerie is a complex character. She is both brave and timid, loyal and a rebel. She becomes a strategist. Laurie explained, “She's had to learn how to survive in this new world, and brings all her talents to the table. I don't even know if she realized that trust and loyalty would be part of her survival skills.”
Many of the characters turn out to be rebels for America. In this respect, the novel reminded me of the colonists who rebelled against the British during our Revolutionary War, although clearly there are many differences. “I was thinking about the American colonists. Some of them were treated terribly by the British soldiers quartered in their towns and villages. I was particularly intrigued by the band of spies [George]Washington employed—the signals they used and how they got in and out of New York and the surrounding areas.”
Laurie said that it was both fun and terrifying to write this novel. “I had fun working with the characters and imagining this world. But it was terrifying at times because I had to dream up ways to disable America's infrastructure that were (mostly) plausible.… How to blind our satellites, how to take out our electrical grids, our cell phones. In a world increasingly dependent on Wi-Fi and the internet and electricity, what if we didn't have these anymore? Not just for a few hours or days but for the foreseeable future?...Terrifying.”
This is not the first review I’ve done of Laurie Boris, such a talented writer. This is a story that moves quickly, has complex relationships and great discussions of food. While I think I may skip the chefs’ preparation of squirrel or meat that is pretty much undefined, Tomas’ creation of a Black Rice Pilaf sounds delicious.