by G. Robert Frazier
The First Lady of the South, Varina Davis, made the best of her life one day at a time. Her only other option—to take her own life with the tiny revolver given to her by her husband, Confederate President Jefferson Davis—was one she chose not to embrace.
Told in a nonlinear fashion to one of her long-lost children, renowned author Charles Frazier’s new novel, Varina, recounts her life both before and after the nation’s bloody Civil War in mesmerizing fashion. Her journey begins as a teenager when she marries the already widowed “Jeff” Davis as a matter of convenience, believing that doing so will result in a secure lifestyle on his Mississippi plantation. Through periods of on-again, off-again romance, Varina and Davis have several children. She even rescues a black child, James Blake, from a beating and makes him part of the family.
When Davis enters politics and is appointed president of the Confederacy, Varina’s complicity makes her equally culpable. With Richmond falling to Union forces, Varina is forced to take the children and flee south. Varina relates the group’s slow, arduous travels on the country’s back roads, contending against inclement weather, disease, roving brigands and bounty hunters. In an uncertain time when refugees—“hungry, desperate rebel soldiers and freed slaves alike”—are unsure what is to become of them, Varina inspires her family to “just keep going one more day and one more day after that.”
Frazier, best known for his National Book Award-winning novel Cold Mountain, returns to form with this emotional and often harrowing depiction of a complicated woman. While Frazier paints Varina as a strong mother and staunch defender of her husband, he skillfully shows the consequences of her complicity in Davis’ decisions. Frazier contrasts that with her later life as a writer in New York as she strives for the reconciliation of a fractured nation, even if it means admitting “that the right side won the war.”
Note: This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Charles and I are not related.