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Varina: A Novel by Charles Frazier

Varina: A Novel (2018)

by Charles Frazier

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Varina, written by Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, is about Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America. It opens in 1906 with a middle-aged black man who has come to her to fill in parts of his past to her who is staying at a "health spa" likely for addiction to laudanum. It seems that when he was a child he stayed with her family as a freed person but also as a child that they were taking care of after finding him being beaten in the streets. Varina put him in with her children to be raised. When Sherman was making his way South burning everything in his path and Richmond became indefensible, Jeff sent her and the children south heading toward Florida and Havana. Varina tells this man, James "Jimmie Limber" Brooks his story and her own story of her life before meeting Jefferson and then their life together.

This book goes back and forth in time between the present, which is 1906 and 1865 and 1874 and 1842 onward. This leads to whiplash as you are thrown willy nilly through the history of this woman's life. In the beginning, she had it pretty hard in that she once came from a wealthy family, but her father squandered the money that he got from his father on bad deals. Pretty soon there was nothing left. She has no dowry to speak of and is now in a position to be asked to no parties to meet gentlemen when her father sends her to stay with a new family in the area the Davis's. While staying with Joe Davis and his many daughters who seem to be of a similar age and whose mother is not much older than Varina who is seventeen and these daughters are in their teens. No one is really sure what is going on in that house. But his brother is Jefferson Davis and he made a handshake deal with him for some land, Brierfield where he made a mess of building it. Jefferson hasn't felt like marrying anyone since his first wife died of malaria not long after they married. But when he meets Varina he sees someone he can marry, though he does not love her.

Varina agrees to marry him after much ado. She has dreams that come true and she dreams of the Civil War and of the South losing and of her and Jefferson being President and First Lady and it ending badly for them. She dreams of losing children she hasn't had yet. As a matter of fact, it would be years before they would have their first child mainly due to the fact that they weren't on equal footing in the marriage and Jefferson's heart and mind were elsewhere. He doesn't even leave her Briarfield in his will but leaves it to his brother to watch over her as he sees fit. Which she knows he'll kick her out as soon as possible. So she sets out war against brother Joe and Jeff to get her inheritance and refuses to sleep with Jefferson in case they have children from that union that would be in peril of losing their inheritance and being destitute. At this time Jefferson is working in Washington D.C. in the government and without Varina there to help him he is failing at his job. Then the Mexican-American War broke out and he left them to go off and fight in it.

The character of James Brooks is not fully formed and you don't feel as though you really know him at all. It's like he's a prop for Varina to tell her story to which could have just as easily have been done to a newspaper editor or someone with whom you wouldn't want to feel a connection to but don't. And the character of Laura who is staying at the place Varina is staying at in 1906 is superfluous. She has no purpose in the story and wastes time and space. Some of the histories behind Varina's story, if true, is entertaining. The story of her laudanum taking and how she is not a "professional" taker but an average person taking it every day and her reasoning behind it are interesting. This isn't a bad book, it just isn't a great book either. It's somewhere in between. I'm just not that fond of his writing style. I give it three and a half stars out of five stars.


So, right now, I wish you every day a happy day and good appetite, warm feet, good friends & everything but forgetfulness. I do not think I would have longed for, or used the water of Lethe. Memory is truly psossession sometimes.

-Charles Frazier (Varina p 40)

Give a Yankee one little dried pea and three thimbles and he can buy groceries. Give him a boxful of cheap, shiny pocketknives and pistols to trade and he will turn it into a career. But give him a war, and he’ll make a fortune to last centuries. It’s not something they learn. They’re saturated in it from birth. End result—we lost everything and they create thousands of new millionaires.

-Charles Frazier (Varina p 43)

What those miserable political animals are doing to that beautiful man [Jefferson Davis]—a man, let me be clear, I have wanted to kill many time sfor my own reasons—is disgusting and heartbreaking.

-Charles Frazier (Varina p 227)

Never acknowledge that the general culture is often stupid or evil and would vote out God in favor of the devil if he fed them back their hate and fear in a way that made them feel righteous.

-Charles Fraizer (Varina p 328-9)

You’ll find that as you grow old, you stop bothering to hide the self you’ve been all along.

-Charles Frazier (Varina p 335)

-And his ideas on war were equally abstract, He said, War is an affair of lines—a problem of geometry.

-Except pencil marks drawn on paper with a straightedge and a protractor don’t bleed.

-Exactly, V said.

-Charles Frazier (Varina p 337) ( )
  nicolewbrown | Apr 10, 2019 |
Varina Howell Davis was the second wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. Though she was raised in a world that might have produced a typical Southern belle, her father's fecklessness instead made her a young woman who was unusually educated and aware of the precariousness of her own position in life. This precariousness would color all the rest of her days as she became the second wife of a man still devoted to his dead first bride, a mother who lost her children one by one, and the first lady of a doomed rebel government.

This beautifully written novel tells Varina's story as she tells it to a man who has come to visit her in the New York hotel where she is living her last days. He believes that he is Jimmie Limber, a black boy whom Varina took into her home and raised with her own children. The tale of their attempted escape through the war-torn South to Cuba, with the Union army hot on their heels, is powerful and suspenseful. The time after the war is less focused and less powerful, as Varina attempts to find a way to live with the losses she has suffered. But throughout, she never descends into self-pity; she realizes that what she has gone through is not even close to just recompense for the evils perpetuated by the Confederate system that she lived in for so long.

I would probably not have picked up a book about Varina if I hadn't heard Charles Frazier speak about it and been intrigued. Her story is quite interesting and I'm glad that I read it. Frazier is sympathetic to her choices and her lack thereof, and does not let her off the hook for her sins. But the tone of this book is not angry; instead it is more regretful. After all, Varina is somewhat protected by her social status and her whiteness, despite her guilt. Maybe a little more anger would be a good thing in telling this story. ( )
  sophroniaborgia | Mar 19, 2019 |
I loved Cold Mountain, so when I heard the author had a new book out, I had to read it. This is an artful, somewhat historical- but billed as a novel- portrait of Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy. While I did find it apologist in some ways, and fictionalizing a real person does leave a heavy burden on the reader to parse what it history and what is creative license, it was nevertheless compelling, beautiful, and lead me to seek more information about the figures involved. ( )
  pdill8 | Mar 12, 2019 |
Historical fiction appeals to many people because they take for granted that it teaches them history but in a novel (as opposed to history book) form. But what if a book, billed as historical fiction, deviates from the truth, not just a little but a lot? Is that OK because this is, after all, fiction? If a publisher/author claims it is historical, shouldn’t the reader expect a reconstruction of past events?

That is my problem with VARINA by Charles Frazier. I’m not sure of its accuracy and don’t know if I can be without reading another book about Varina.

Varina was the second wife of Jefferson Davis, the president of a nonexistent country, the Confederacy, during the American Civil War. Although she is not WELL known, many facts about her life are known, and most readers of VARINA assume they are incorporated into this novel. I did. Now I wonder.

VARINA begins long after the Civil War, when Varina is living in the North (which she really did). She reunites with a man who she saved when he was a child. (He really did exist, although they never really reunited.) Now she remembers for him her life before, during, and after the Civil War.

Whenever I read historical fiction I want to know what parts of it are fiction and what parts fact. Usually the author adds notes to make this clear. But Frazier did not add notes to VARINA. So I looked them up on the Internet.

I found an article by Kimberly J. Largent from Ohio State University called “The Life of Varina Howell Davis: First Lady of the Confederacy” (https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/life-varina-howell-davis-first-lady-confederac...). Much of it differs from VARINA, in particular that Jefferson Davis never got over his first wife and was not a good husband to Varina. According to Largent, they both loved each other very much, and she was not jealous of the first wife at all. Also, when Varina tried to escape with her children to Cuba after the war, the book VARINA has Jefferson meeting with her only once, when they were captured, whereas Largent says he met with them often, off and on during their escape attempt.

So who’s right? I rate VARINA with four stars because I give Frazier the benefit of the doubt that he wrote HISTORICAL fiction, not just fiction. But if the OSU article is correct, I downgrade that to two stars, maybe one. ( )
  techeditor | Feb 2, 2019 |
As with Cold Mountain, I appreciated Frazier's complex diction, his almost laconic narrative musings of the protagonists, his careful blend of geographic/cultural/political details with the immediacy of Varina's emotions, thoughts. Historical fiction at its best with a fascinating woman who did not fit the rosy cheeked Southern belle stereotype, who maintained a full life, intellectually & socially, in spite of her almost constant struggles with her more powerful husband and his elder brother, the deaths of so many of her six children, the inescapable chaos and destruction at the end of our country's terrible civil war, & then living with the aftermath of being the First Lady of the lost cause. Interesting choice to tease out her story with the use of a second narrator, an "interviewer" in the later years of her life (1906-). "Jimmie", now James Blake, a freed black & highly educated teacher, has vague recollections of his early childhood; he comes upon a Davis biographer's book, with references to him being a part of the Davis household as a small child. He eventually seeks out his long ago mistress & protector, to confirm his early childhood memories, & seek understanding. While this interplay of James and Varina, their subsequent meetings forces the reader to go back & forth in Varina's many years, the author remains firmly in control of both their voices, and the comprehensive portrait of an intelligent, complex woman clearly emerges. Fascinating to read. It would make a great read for a book club for those who enjoyed historical fiction/biography. ( )
  BDartnall | Jan 2, 2019 |
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"Her marriage prospects limited, teenage Varina Howell agrees to wed the much-older widower Jefferson Davis, with whom she expects the secure life of a Mississippi landowner. Davis instead pursues a career in politics and is eventually appointed president of the Confederacy, placing Varina at the white-hot center of one of the darkest moments in American history"--… (more)

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