Hmm. This was an interesting idea for a book, but it didn’t quite work for me. As the title suggested, it was about Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis and therefore First Lady of the Confederacy. She was a very interesting person – not the Southern belle you might expect, but someone who was very well-educated, partly in Philadelphia of all places, not a strong supporter of either slavery or secession, not particularly keen on hostessing and not at all convinced that her husband was the right person to be president of the Confederacy.
I was expecting the book to be set largely during the war years, and it wasn’t. That was my fault, not the author’s: there was no reason why the book should have focused on those years, rather than on aspects of Varina’s life before and after the war. So, OK, I can’t really moan about that. But I can moan about the way it jumped about. One minute, Varina was in her late 70s, living in New York. The next, she was a teenage girl in Mississippi. Then she was in her late 30s, on the run after the Confederacy surrendered. Then she was in her 20s, living in Washington. It just jumped about all over the place, and that really made it very difficult to get into the story.
That was really rather a shame, because her life story was very interesting. And intertwined with it was the fascinating story of Jimmie Limber, a young free mixed race boy, who was taken in by the Davises during the war after Varina saw him being mistreated by his guardian. Sadly, he became separated from them whilst they were captured. It’s not clear whether or not they ever met again, but this book imagined him and Varina being reunited years later. That could have worked very well.
So it could have been a very good book. But all the jumping about and failure to get into any one particular time in Varina’s life didn’t really work for me. I wasn’t expecting Gone With The Wind or North and South – and I’m afraid that my idea of Varina was largely drawn from the negative opinion held of her by Ashton Main Huntoon in the North and South books, which, given what a nasty character Ashton is, was silly of me:-) – but I was at least expecting a coherent narrative!
2 thoughts on “Varina by Charles Frazier”
Dare I say that to me your own literary style is very smart and makes we wonder whether you have, or have ever considered, writing a book. Great writers are typically widely-read!
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Thank you so much!
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