1900s, Civil War

Varina Lacks Warmth

Jefferson and Varina Davis

Varina, is the story of a tragic life — that of Varina Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Her saga is indeed sad — an unhappy marriage,drug addiction, the deaths of almost all of her six children, and separation of many years from her husband. Curiously, after reading the novel, I don’t feel sorry for her, but don’t feel much of anything else either.

Charles Frazier, of Cold Mountain fame, is the author. But this narrative falls short of his first trip through the Civil War.

Varina adopts a black boy who is being abused on the street while she is a society wife before the war. She is separated from the boy after they are captured by the Union Army, and he grows up to be a teacher who is curious about his roots. He tracks Varina down in 1906, while she is living in New York City, and accosts her with many questions about his origins and her feelings about her husband and about slavery.

According to this book and to Wikipedia, Varina Davis was opposed to slavery and predicted that the South would lose the Civil War. But despite their difficulties and their many years apart, Varina loved and supported her husband, finishing his memoir after his death.

But Varina, in the book that bears her name, only survives with the help of opiates. She claims that doctors had been prescribing the drugs to “excitable” women for all kinds of medical problems. So, a little opium goes into her tea. As a result, she teeters on the brink of life as all four of her sons die, one of them falling off a balcony at the age of five at the Southern White House.

What bothered me about this book was the fact that I didn’t know how to react emotionally. We are supposed to admire Varina for her progressive views, both toward slaves and toward her marriage. But I didn’t feel much empathy towards her, or anyone else in the novel. The books presents many pretty images and literary passages, but lacked punch.

Grade: C+

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