Wednesday, June 06, 2018


Varina. Charles Frazier. 2018. Ecco. 368 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Things fell apart slowly before they fell apart fast.

Premise/plot: James Blake has come to Saratoga Springs in search of answers. He's seeking an audience with Varina Davis, the widow of Jefferson Davis. The year is 1906. Why does he think she'll be able to help? His memories of his childhood are few and far between--a blurry mess. He's recently read in a book that Mrs. Davis took him in--perhaps off the street, perhaps from a mulatto she knew--as a young child. He wants to know who he is--first of all--and why she did it second. Why would the First Lady of the South--this was during the Civil War after all--take in a colored child and raise him with her own children in the nursery, treat him as one of her own? Did she do it out of love? out of pity? as a novelty? Did she see him as human or a pet project?

These two questions: "Who am I?" and "Who is she?" fuel the novel forward. In the book, he's James or Jimmie and she is simply V. The novel is arranged into six or perhaps seven meetings. The story is told in part through dialogue--their conversations together, what their meeting all these decades later brings back to her mind. But the story is also told in part through flashbacks. Readers get very brief sketches of her life throughout her life. It isn't just a story of the war years. And it is definitely not a straightforward account of her experiences during the war and after the war. She clings to no cause and has no agenda in romanticizing the past.

As she seeks to answer his questions perhaps she answers a few of her own as well.

My thoughts: This is a fiction novel. I wish he'd included a note saying if anything in the novel is remotely true or if it's all from his own imagination. What was the real Varina Davis like? Who were her friends? who were her enemies? Did she really battle her in-laws fiercely? Did she really try to make her way to Florida so she could escape to Cuba? What kind of person was she? What kind of legacy did she leave behind? The portrait he sketches is oh-so-human.

Don't expect a traditional historical novel with a straight-forward plot.

© 2018 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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