New Review: Varina

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Author: Charles Frazier

Format: audiobook

Access: library

I listened to Varina as I drove from Alaska to Montana. It was interesting to contemplate the life of the wife and widow of Jefferson Davis as I watch Canadian prairie rolling past my car windows. The conceit of the book is that James Brooks- a man who knew Varina when he was a child- has sought her out in her later years to get information from her.

Her story unfolds partially in sessions where James and V (as her friends call her) talk on Sunday afternoons, in a kind of hotel or sanatorium where she is living. V reflects on her life before she met Davis, their married life during which they were rarely together, and then her long widowhood- watching most of her children die and being a source of frustration for some who wished to continue to bring “honor” to the “Glorious Cause”.

James, as it turns out, was a black child whom V brought into the family life. He was separated from the Davis family as the war ended and Jefferson was arrested for treason. He serves as the moral center of the book, pushing V to reflect on her history and where mistakes were made.

While the black child living with the Davis family and then being taken is based on true events, the adult encounter is fictional (as far as I understand). I wrestle with the idea of a black character as the “corrective” for history because it feels only a step removed from a “magical black friend”. While James has his own misgivings and fears, his encounters with V serve to stir her reflections on her own life. It has never been the job or work of black people to help white people understand their mistakes. It is work that white people, even Varina Davis, have to take up of their own accord.

That being said, James does push V to think about what the power dynamics truly were between V and her slave, Ellen, as well as between Jefferson and his slaves. It doesn’t matter if you call a person “friend”, if you own them- there is a power imbalance and a fundamental rift that cannot be healed.

Some of the phrases from the book that I continue to consider:

“Whether you pick well or poorly, the act of choosing carries grief. Leaves you wondering, years later, what life might have been had you chosen differently. . . . Or even wishing you’d simply paused, taken a long, deep breath. Not allowed the personal moment and the pattern of your family and your stupid culture to shove you two-handed from behind, forcing you to stumble unbalanced into the future”

“Remembering doesn’t change anything—it will always have happened. But forgetting won’t erase it either.”

“The instant passed so fast, and when that happens, it goes for good and all you have is a slow lifetime to speculate on revisions. Except time flows one way and drags us with it no matter how hard we paddle upstream.”

“Inhuman, V says. But that’s an easy word. We’ve been doing that sort of thing to each other all through history, back past the Pyramids. Humans are inhuman, whether it’s by direct action or by acceptance of a horrible action as normal.”

What I like about this book is that it puts a modern sense of reflection, of the cost of history, into the thoughts and words of a person who was in the thick of it. It does not pretend that Varina was anything less than she was.

V’s recollections are interspersed with James Brooks’s own interactions in the “modern” Saratoga Springs in 1906 (and later in Richmond). He’s harassed by staff in the hotel/sanatorium, he’s encouraged to leave town before the sun sets, he can’t sit where he would like on the train. The book is reminding the reader that the violence of the Civil War did not actually solve the issue of people seeing one another with eyes of equality, equity, and decency.

With regard to the audiobook, I highly enjoyed the reader and will be looking for more from her. She did not do much stylizing for different voices but read in a smooth style that was engaging and easy to follow.

I really wanted to talk about this book as soon as I’d finished it and I still do. Have you read it?

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