Varina by Charles Frazier
Whether its history, biography or historical fiction the devastation of the American Civil War is widely read and known about but not always and not about everyone who was there. Charles Frazier, author of best seller Cold Mountain, takes us back to those awful days and introduces us to a teenage girl who lived surrounded by the people, events and consequences of that awful war.
Her name is Varina Howell. With a financially reckless father she agrees to wed the much-older widower Jefferson Davis, perhaps giving her stability and the ability to help her parents. Davis is a wealthy Mississippi planter and slaveholder. Davis pursue politics and Varina find herself in Washington where he husband is a key figure as a Congressman and leading figure in several administrations.
Davis is eventually appointed president of the Confederacy, putting Varina in the middle of things. For Civil War “buffs” the details of the war as seen thru Varinas life will likely not reveal much that is new. It is her life, experiences and thoughts that grab the reader. The Confederacy falling, her marriage in tatters, her rescue of a black child being beaten on the street of Richmond, later raising that boy with her own children is only the beginning. Later she and her children escape Richmond and travel south on their own, now fugitives with “bounties on their heads, an entire nation in pursuit.” This is the story of one woman’s tragic life and is epic in its breadth and intimacy.
Because her twilight years were more interesting to Frazier, he decided against using a traditional biographical approach to tell Davis’ story. This bothered me at first. I like and need chronology to keep track of things in any story. I’ll let the author explain in his own words…
“I decided early on that I didn’t want the structure to be based on the calendar,” he said. “I wanted it to be based on memory and association. I wanted that back and forth, push and pull, jumping through time.”To reveal her tale, Frazier drew on a real person from her past. During the last year of the war, the Davis family took in a young mixed-race boy and raised him with their children. That boy, known as Jimmy Limber, was taken away when the family was captured by Union soldiers as they tried to flee to Cuba. He never saw Varina Davis again. And his fate remains a mystery. For his novel, “Varina,” Frazier creates James Blake, the adult version of that boy. Blake, who is a teacher, becomes the book’s driving force as he tracks Davis down and pushes her to help him understand his past.
The book’s chapters alternate between the two adults and Davis’ life in New York and flashbacks that reveal her childhood, her marriage and particularly the harrowing journey she and her children took as they fled Richmond after the Confederacy collapsed. The narrative jumping around can be frustrating at first but in the end the reader realizes that this is an exploration of Varinas memories, her feeling of complicity and realizations of the moral depravity of slavery and it consequences in her own life.
Having previously read and reviewed the story of the Grimke sisters (The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kid ) this book was an interesting counterpoint. Varina is a feminist in her own right. She is conflicted. She made tough choices. And most interestingly was and is still denigrated by those who wish her husbands cause had prevailed….This is a most fascinating and revealing novel/ biography. I highly recommend it.....br />
Click icon for more
book review blogs
book review blogs