“Varina” is the fictionalized story of Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The novel starts in 1906, when James Blake tracks down Varina at The Retreat, in Saratoga Springs. James, a 46 year old biracial school teacher, had been raised by Varina and lived with her family until he was around 6 years old. He is trying to recall the early part of his life. The novel revolves around Varina filling in the gaps for James and telling her story over the course of six Sundays.
The novel focuses on Varina’s life with Jeff and her family’s efforts to escape after the loss of the Civil War. Throughout the book, Varina also recalls the early part of her life. Varina’s mother had money and Varina’s father managed to lose it all on questionable business ventures. As a result of the family’s financial distress, at the age of 17, she is sent to live with the family of Joseph Davis. The family is peculiar in that Joseph is quite old and his daughters and his wife appear to be roughly the same age.
Joseph explains to Varina his theory of slavery and the combination of capital and labor. Varina argues with him and is outspoken and Joseph does not take that well. The Davis compound, interestingly, is effectively run by a slave, Benjamin Montgomery.
When Jefferson Davis shows up she is attracted to him, despite the fact that he is significantly older. They begin to court, but he is perpetually grieving over the death of his first wife, Knoxie Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor. Jeff and Varina marry and Jeff becomes a Congressman. They move to Washington where Varina becomes lifelong friends with Mary Chestnut. Jeff ultimately becomes a senator and as we all know, President of the Confederacy.
Much of the book is then dedicated to the year 1865 when Varina, her children (including James, who at the time was called Jimmie Limber because of his ability to stretch his finger backward to his knuckles) and some others are attempting to make their way to Cuba. During the trip and before they are captured they meet some colorful people and have some interesting experiences. Of course they are all captured and Jimmie is separated from the family. Many of Varina’s children die and her marriage to Jefferson is maintained on a tether. Varina moves to London and lives separately from Jeff for a long time, but they ultimately end up living free lives together.
The story is told at The Retreat and at horse races at Saratoga Springs. The Retreat is a sort of wellness center and Varina befriends a resident who is fearful of her family and becomes a part of the story. James is trying to fill in the gaps in his life, both emotionally and chronologically. He and Varina become close.
The novel is interesting, insightful and extremely well written. I suspect that the story is kinder to the Davis family than deserved. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.