The book cover caught my eye - VARINA. It was the pen-name of a woman associated with the history and latter-half of the name of my hometown in North Carolina, Fuquay-Varina. Little did I know that the Charles Frazier's historical fiction was going to take me back in time to learn about Varina Howell Davis - the First Lady of the Confederacy.
Varina Howell Davis was a highly educated Southern woman in the unexpected and contentious position of being married at a young age to an older man whose views on many things she did not share. This was no love story; rather, it's a tale of experiencing the unimaginable and living to tell it.
Varina did not share the same philosophy on capital and labor as her husband and the large plantation owners of the South. As civility eroded between states, state representatives departed Washington. Varina's dreams foreshadowed massive battle and bloodshed. She implored Jeff not to engage in the mounting conflict; and then, he was elected as President of the Confederacy.
Hearing how the "great conflict" came about through the voice of Varina added layers to my knowledge of the tragedy Americans inflicted on one another leading up to, throughout and in the aftermath of the Civil War. (It's no coincidence that mental images from Gone With the Wind often came to mind during my reading of Frazier's book. Margaret Mitchell studied the writings of Varina Davis and her friend Mary Chestnut to create her epic novel.)
I read this book twice. It's complex. I found it helpful to make notes to keep track of the many historical figures "V" encountered. It was well worth the effort.
Of particular interest to me was Varina's first encounter with a young senator from Texas, Sam Houston. Frazier writes, it was not unusual for Varina to spend "many hours sitting in the steep seats above the House floor listening to speeches - the rube rhetoric, the various accents, the wisdom and foolishness of lawmakers." Varina made her way to the hallway on the other side of the Capitol - outside the Senate. There she encountered, Mr Houston. As with all the young women he met, "he lunged an aggressive step forward - pushing up much too close - then bowed low, and in a deep voice said, 'Lady, I salute you.' Then he stood and took a snakeskin pouch from the pocket of his cougar vest and plucked out a little carved wooden heart. He spent his days on the Senate floor whittling dozens of them. He reached it out (towards Varina) and said, "Let me give you my heart." I couldn't help but smile. The most popular gift for men from my collection of jewelry, is the pocket heart.
Charles Frazier offers through this novel a better understanding of this tumultuous, splintering time in our history - to learn from it - to remember and acknowledge the cost to all - lest it be in vain.
Frazier's storytelling takes the reader from early 1900's Sunday afternoon visits from "one who was like her own" back in time as Varina is asked to share her memories. "These days she tries to be gentle with her young self" was one of my favorite lines in the story. It is comforting to know that Varina had come to terms with the past and was at peace late in her life - something, that most hope to achieve.
Not to be missed in Varina, is the author's the underlying message woven throughout this novel - though the war concluded, hearts change - slowly over time.
There is still time.
Mr. Frazier, Brilliant novel! Thank you for introducing Varina to the world, especially to those of us who otherwise may have never come to know her - despite our Southern roots and U.S. Military History studies with UNC professor, Dr. James Leutz. Best Regards. - Jean Schnaak, UNC Class of '79.
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