Morning Book Break Book Discussion Group on
Varina by Charles Frazier
The Morning Book Break Book Discussion group rated the book between a 1.0 and 5.0. The average of the ratings was 3.65.
Charles Frazier grew up in the South and felt like after Cold Mountain, he did not want to return to the Civil War era. Yet, he felt the subject matter continues to be relevant; we are a country that still hasn’t healed and still hasn’t made peace with the past. Charles Frazier had no interest in writing about or learning more about Jefferson Davis, but he was interested in the little known Varina Davis. He thought she was interesting because she said publicly that the right side won. It was interesting to him that this woman who had benefited so greatly from the plantation in Mississippi was still evolving in her thinking up to her death in 1906. She became friends with Julia Grant and they wanted to be seen together in New York as symbols of reconciliation. Charles Frazier said in an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer, “She would have days when she would say something incredibly retrograde, and then she would say something so positive and progressive. She was struggling with what had become of her life, being on the wrong side of history…It’s only the greatest heroes in history, who are able to totally rise above the values of their culture. She certainly wasn’t. But she was trying.”
As always, the discussion was stimulating and interesting. Several members increased their ratings based on the discussion. Overall, members felt like they had to work too hard to enjoy the novel. One member thought it would have been helpful to have a timeline in the front of the book—this would assist the reader in tracking the story of Varina. Most members really enjoyed the fugitive story section (the escape of Varina and her children from Richmond). This story was an educational technique to introduce readers to the tumultuous and chaotic South right after the fall of Richmond.
All group members were impressed with the talented writing of Charles Frazier. They found his prose lyrical and moving. They enjoyed his descriptive writing. Some members thought his writing style was exquisite, but felt the novel was too lengthy and jumped around too much. So, while sentences were beautifully constructed; it was too hard to follow.
The group spent a fair amount of time discussing the narrative choices of Charles Frazier. Most members found the narrative confusing and disjointed. They did not like the way he wrote the novel. They especially disliked the lack of quotation marks and the stream of consciousness-like writing and the memory flashbacks. Two members were not bothered by the punctuation. The facilitator has a special fondness for the “hyphen,” so she loved the punctuation choice. To her, the use of the hyphens felt like the waxing and waning of memories—they are random and they come and go—they are not linear or formal.
Surprisingly, the members who gave the novel low marks were still interested in pursuing more information about Varina Davis. So, the author did a good job in sparking interest in the story of a relatively unknown woman. One member stated that she considers a historical novel a worthy read if the novel causes her to want to learn more about the subject matter or the characters presented.
The facilitator really connected with the writing of Charles Frazier. She read the novel in four sittings and thought that the back and forth nature of memories felt just like the way people remember events. Memories are not linear but they move and shift. The facilitator thought that any author that can fully connect a reader with characters from the past is worth their weight in gold.
- We discussed Varina Howell’s upbringing and her parents. We discussed the expectations and the choices women had in the 1800’s.
- We discussed Varina’s marriage with Jefferson Davis. We talked about their differing personalities and how this affected their marriage. We discussed Varina’s strength of character to insist on in being named in her husband’s will.
- The novel Varina has been compared to Gone With the Wind. The group talked about how the novels are similar. The group thought that Frazier depicted The Fall of Richmond much like Mitchell depicted The Burning of Atlanta. In some ways, Varina is like Scarlett — they both are strong woman and survivors. They both naively dream about their debutante past—without realizing this structure was built on slavery. We discussed Varina’s hopes and dreams and contrasted this with the life that was forced upon her — similar to Scarlett’s trajectory.
- We discussed Varina’s view of slavery as depicted by Charles Frazier and we discussed how this view evolved over the course of the novel. In an interview, Frazier talks about why he was intrigued with Varina Davis—she was born in the South and lived with slavery all around; as she lived into old age she seemed to wrestle with her past and her complicity and this is definitely addressed in the novel.
- The groups spent a good deal of time talking about Varina’s complicity and views. From p. 101 – “Varina has never made any claim of personal high ground. She grew up where and when she did. From earliest memory, owning other people was a given. But she began feeling the strangeness of it about nine or ten—not wrongness or the sin of it, but the strangeness only.”
- We contrasted the above view with another passage from the novel on p. 39, “Being on the wrong side of history carries consequences. Varina lives that truth every day. If you’ve done terrible things, lived a terribly way, profited from pain in the face of history’s power to judge, then guilt and loss accrue.” The group discussed Varina’s version of the truth and whether or not her understanding/perception of it has changed over the years.
- Early in the novel on p. 6, Varina states, “If you haven’t noticed, we’re a furious nation, and war drums beat in our chest. Our leaders proclaim better than they negotiate. The only bright spot is, the right side won.” In light of this quote, the group discussed what they thought Varina would think about today’s removal of the South’s many Civil War statues, including her husband’s.
- Charles Frazier uses an interesting device to tell Varina’s story; he uses a real life black child, Jimmie Limber, as a character. Jimmie Limber lived with the Davises for several years during the Civil War. When the novel opens we meet Varina Davis in 1906 in Saratoga Springs. Varina is living at The Retreat (a rehabilitation facility). She is in the midst of trying to overcome her opium addiction and while there James Blake (Jimmie Limber) comes to find out about his past. It is a this time, readers are introduced to the adult Jimmie Limber who is a fictional character that Charles Frazier has created to move Varina’s story forward while addressing and gently critiquing her past. James keeps Varina’s recollections moored in others’ reality. So, readers are introduced to an unreliable narrator—an older woman with a drug problem. James Blake interviews Varina over the course of seven Sundays and readers must trace the back and forth nature of memories and recollections. In light of how the narrative is written, we discussed how Varina and James’ memories reveal their different experiences. We discussed what insights we gained from each of the characters’ revelations.
- The novel’s timeline shifts frequently. We discussed whether or not we found this confusing or distracting. We discussed how this shift reveals the fractured nature of memories, as well as the way the past bleed into the present.
Charles Frazier was interviewed at Appel Salon (Toronto Public Library)
on November 7, 2018 (If interested, this interview can be accessed on YouTube).
For books and movie in our collection by Charles Frazier, please click here.
For a nonfiction title recommended by Charles Frazier, check out: