Monday, April 16, 2018

Review of Charles Frazier's Varina, about the Confederacy's unlikely first lady

What legacy befalls those who find themselves on history’s wrong side? Frazier’s (Nightwoods, 2011) fourth Southern historical novel centers on Varina Howell Davis, the unlikely first lady of the doomed Confederacy.

Its nonlinear structure roams across her tragic life’s vast landscape, from her girlhood as an impoverished Mississippi planter’s well-educated daughter to her strained marriage to the much-older Jefferson Davis to old age in a Saratoga Springs rest home. There, regular visits from James Blake, an African American man she’d taken in as a child, prompt her recollections.

Frazier crafts haunting scenes of her and her children’s flight from Richmond via wagon through the devastated South and her morphine-hazed, funereal view of her husband’s rain-soaked inauguration.

Intelligent, outspoken, and clear-sighted but yoked to an intransigent man, the real Varina (who is called “V” throughout) sometimes feels elusive. One wonders what she could have become under different circumstances.

In her conversations with James, she proclaims “the right side won” yet seems unable to fully grasp slavery’s ramifications. This powerful realization of its time also has significant meaning for ours.

Charles Frazier's Varina is published this month by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. I wrote this review for Booklist's March 1 issue. Frazier is best known, of course, for Cold Mountain, a book I've yet to read (!). I enjoyed his Thirteen Moons, particularly the quality of writing, although I felt the protagonist's love interest wasn't fully three-dimensional.

For more information on the novel's background, read an interview with the author from the News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina).

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