Varina (Genre: Historical Fiction)
by Charles Frazier
Of course I wanted to read another book by Charles Frazier. He was the author of Cold Mountain that wonderful tale of a wounded rebel soldier during the Civil War trying to make it back home to the woman he loved. But Varina is not Cold Mountain. Though both books take place during the Civil War era, and Frazier continues to demonstrate in Varina how well he’s able to recreate a historical period through his masterful use of archaic language and detail, Varina simply is not as compelling a read as Cold Mountain.
Varina Davis was the much younger wife of Jefferson Davis, the president of the short-lived Confederate States of America, (those states that seceded from the union during the Civil War). Though Varina is a little-known colorful figure in American history (in Frazier’s story she’s quite an opium eater), our interest in her lies primarily in how she survived and changed after the South lost the war.
However, Frazier’s exploration of Varina’s transition from southern belle and Washington hostess to an independent woman living on her own in London and New York, is never fully realized. More words are given to the men surrounding Varina: James Blake, Ryland, and Burton Harrison, to name a few. From their mouths we see how bewildered southerners felt, losing the war, and being forced to give up the institution of slavery, a necessary evil which they believed, built their economy.
Thus, the books great failing is that though it’s about a woman, it reads more like a book about the southern men the war left behind. This fatal flaw and the meandering story line made me lose interest several times. The most gripping part of the story really was Varina’s attempt to escape Richmond for Cuba, slaves and children in tow. Only in these chapters did I feel the kind of engagement I had reading Frazier’s Cold Mountain years ago.