Varina by Charles Frazier
Sceptre, 2018. ISBN 9781473686144
(Age: 16+) Recommended.
In 1906, a man whose shade of skin is 'noted' by the desk clerk, asks to see a hotel guest, Mrs. Davis, and is told he may wait outside on a bench. But he persists in staying by the fireplace until he meets her - the famous Varina Davis, or V as she is called, once wife to the President of the Confederate States of America. James Blake is trying to recover his own history, and in the following meetings with V, she recounts his life and hers. He was a waif, brought up with her own young children - the question is though, could he really have been one of them, or was he a much-loved pet? Was he owned? Could there really be love, friendship, and affection between people who are owned and their owners? Kevin Powers answered this in the negative in his brutal expose of master and slave in A shout in the ruins, also set during the American civil war. Frazier's novel is more nuanced. Slavery may be wrong but relationships are complex, as is continually revealed throughout the story of Varina's life. And in the end, after the war, was the freedom brought by the Union soldiers truly freedom? At the end of the book, when James is travelling home from V's funeral, he is told by the train conductor to move 3 cars back to the one with the sign saying COLORED.
Readers of historical fiction who seek a story of great romance set against a background of the civil war will be disappointed. There is no sweeping hero, no grand love story. Varina's choices as a young girl are limited and she makes the best of what she can. Gradually she asserts her intelligence and independent spirit, and also her humanity, to make her own path, and protect her children, including James, as best she can. Perhaps some of the later choices she makes could be seen as a kind of atonement for earlier self-perceived failings. All in all it is a brilliant portrayal of a complex person, a woman of intelligence, moral integrity and kindness, who despite her upbringing in slave owner country could probably have worked out a better solution than the cruel and wasteful war the country became embroiled in.