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Twenty years after COLD MOUNTAIN, which won the National Book Award, became an international bestseller and adapted into an Academy Award-winning film, Charles Frazier revisits the days of the Civil War era in his latest novel, VARINA. This time the focus is on Varina Davis, the wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, unknowingly being placed on the wrong side of history.

Frazier takes readers through different points in Varina’s life as a mirror to life in the South, starting when she is an old woman in 1906 and meeting James Blake, an African-American schoolteacher seeking her out in hopes that she might be able to shed light on his childhood.

At 18, Varina Howell marries the much older widower Jefferson Davis, a Mississippi landowner with whom she expects a lifetime of security. Instead, after fighting the Mexican-American War, he begins a career in politics and eventually ends up as the president of the Confederacy in 1861. With this, Varina is placed at the center of events during the rise and fall of the Confederacy. As Union forces close in on Richmond, and with her marriage in tatters, Varina and her children --- including Limber Jimmy, a mixed-race boy she adopts --- flee south as fugitives with “bounties on their heads, an entire nation in pursuit,” hoping to find safe harbor in Cuba.

"For those who are even mildly interested in learning about the Civil War, VARINA will be a fascinating read."

There is no doubt that Frazier’s lyricism is one of the highlights of the novel. However, to the average 21st-century reader, it can come off as verbose but inevitable in trying to imitate 19th-century speech. Even so, the historical research he does blends itself wonderfully into the dialogue.

Varina herself is written as someone who persists and eventually escapes the restrictions of the Confederacy, Southern culture and the expectations of women. Still, she can’t help but look back on her life that has been shaped by bad ideology. James acts as a convincing critic, keeping Varina’s unchecked comments about other people’s reality in balance, even those involving Jefferson himself:

“He did as most politicians do ---  except more so --- corrupt our language and symbols of freedom, pervert our heroes. Put a heavy sack of gold in the hand of a man, and a feather-like declaration about freedom in the other. And then an outlaw sticks a pistol in his face and says give me one or the other. Every time --- ten out of ten --- he’ll hug the sack and throw away the ideals. Because the sack’s what’s behind the ideals.”

Outside of this, Varina and James are traversing different time periods, driven to figure out their existences in a radically changed world in the form of shared memories.

Some would say that going back to write about the same setting can be repetitive, but it is up to the right author to place upon it a new angle for looking at a challenging time period. Frazier succeeds in asking the questions pervading the novel --- “How do you escape a situation you’ve been wedded to?” and “How do you deal with the aftermath of a life-changing mistake?” --- without providing an easy answer that the wrong person could easily conjure. For those who are even mildly interested in learning about the Civil War, VARINA will be a fascinating read.

Reviewed by Gabriella Mayer on April 26, 2018

by Charles Frazier

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062405985
  • ISBN-13: 9780062405982