I first encountered Charles Frazier via his wonderful Cold Mountain and the equally powerful film with Renee Zellweger. For some reason I sort of lost track of him until I encountered his powerful latest–Varina. I recognized the reference of the title immediately, since her name is one of the most memorable in American history. Yet, she seldom gets more than a passing mention as Jefferson Davis’s wife. Well, Frazier’s terrific book will I hope start to change all that.
The novel starts right where it should, with a narrator coming to interview Varina in her old age. But this narrator is not just some reporter from a major newspaper. He was one of Varina’s children, a sort of adoptee she rescued when he was a small boy being beaten on a Richmond, Virginia, sidewalk. And he bears a book compiled of mementos, press clippings, and some articles by a woman whose relationship is not given. However, in the course (seven Sundays) of checking the veracity of “the blue book” against Varina’s memory and his own, We slowly see the course of the life of this remarkable lady. From her privileged Mississippi childhood, spoiled by a drunken, profligate father, to a virtual imprisonment on a poor wilderness estate, held virtual prisoner by Jefferson Davis, or more particularly his brother, who held sway over the both of them. Her forced marriage to this much older man who lives pining for his first wife to the extent that the first stop on their honeymoon is a visit to her grave. It appears her life is destined to be an emotional graveyard, but she refused to make it so.
She’s devilish smart, gets herself educated to the extent that when Davis is elected to congress, she makes herself prominent in Washington, holding salon conversations with the wittiest and wisest of all and sundry. Through it all, Davis is too busy to pay much attention to her, and their marriage begins to take on the pattern of long and frequent separations.
When it comes time to split from the union and Davis gets elected Confederate President, of course, things start to fall apart in every way. Before long, Varina is on the road with what’s left of her household fleeing toward what they hope will be safety in Cuba. They don’t make it, of course, and Davis is captured in disgrace, trying to disguise himself as a woman. Though the rest of her life is filled with failure and disappointment, there is a sort of joyful redemption that emerges from her attitude that nothing and no one is worth adopting eternal pain as a companion. In her refuge at Saratoga Springs, she virtually adopts an emotionally damaged young lady. She communes with our narrator about the past and future. And out of the ruins she establishes hope where most of us would despair.
Combine all that happens here with Frazier’s poetic language, and you have a near-perfect book, at least for readers of historical fiction. Kudos to the man.