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Varina
Charles Frazier
To be released April, 2018
Reviewed by Phil

I read Charles Frazier’s earlier book, Cold Mountain, when I first moved to the mountains of North Carolina 10 years ago. It provided a great introduction to the history and culture of my new home. Frazier’s latest book, Varina, (to be released in April) returns once again to that time period. The book, a fictional retelling of parts of Varina Jefferson’s life, powerfully evokes the chaos and destruction in the aftermath of the civil war.

Seventeen-year-old Varina, the book’s namesake, marries the much older widower, Jefferson Davis, expecting to live out her life on a Mississippi plantation. Instead, her husband takes up politics, eventually becoming president of the Confederacy. As the confederacy falls, Varina, her children and a small band of helpers, flee Richmond and head for Florida, with a plan to take a boat to Cuba, and then on to Europe. With bounties on their heads, and the widespread belief that they are running off with the last of the Confederacy’s gold, the fugitives are chased across the country by motley groups of union soldiers and bounty hunters.

Central to the story is the relationship between Varina and James, a homeless boy of uncertain background whom Varina adopts on impulse after feeling guilty about abandoning a slave who was being sold away from her family. She raises James as one of her own, prompting many raised eyebrows amongst her friends and acquaintances, and he is part of the group that flees Richmond with her at the end of the war. The book begins with an elderly Varina, coming down to the lobby of the Saratoga Springs hotel where she lives to meet James, whom she last saw decades ago. Over the next few weeks, James visits Varina each Sunday, and Varina relates her experiences of their flight.

Through the telling, Frazier explores key questions about guilt and complicity and consequences, and examines the nature of ownership and property. This is a powerful read.

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