3 out of 4 stars
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Varina Davis, written by Beverly Grasley, follows Varina, the wife of Jefferson Davis (who led the Confederate States of America). The reader is introduced to Varina as a teenager who joins the wealthy Joseph Davis and his family for the Christmas holiday. She becomes engaged to Jefferson, Joseph’s brother, and embarks with him on a political journey that will change their lives and the lives of many other people.
The story takes place between 1843 and 1881. It’s divided into three parts: the years before the American Civil War, the Confederacy period, and the aftermath. Though the narration is told in the third-person point of view, Varina Davis is a deeply personal tale that chronicles the lives of Varina and her family and friends. Jefferson himself is portrayed more as a husband and father than a president.
Everything in the novel feels authentic, from the setting and dialogue to the smallest details of clothing. It’s a well-researched book that manages to draw the reader into the story through its vivid descriptions. The only exception is the third part of the novel, which feels somewhat rushed; several months and years take place in the span of a few paragraphs.
Historical novels can fall into the trap of being too dense for casual readers, but this book usually avoids this issue. Lots of names are thrown around, but the characters are recontextualized whenever necessary. For example, instead of simply referring to William Emory, a man who had been introduced a few pages ago, the novel mentions that he’s Jefferson’s old friend from West Point, which helps the reader remember him.
There are many interesting characters in the book, though Varina is the most explored and developed. She’s a strong but complex woman who tries to act as a pillar to her children and the community even when everything seems to be falling apart. Other notable characters include her stoic husband Jefferson and her boisterous friend Mary.
Sadly, the book features many errors, from misspelled words to missing or extraneous punctuation. They’re mostly minor typographical issues, but it’s a shame that an otherwise great book has such poor editing. Because of these errors and the somewhat lackluster final portion of the novel, I rate Varina Davis 3 out of 4 stars.
The novel is suitable for young teenagers since there are no profanities or mature content. There are, however, dated words like “Negro.” I recommend the book to history lovers, especially those interested in the American Civil War. You don’t need to be very knowledgeable about the topic, but you might have to research things like the Oregon dispute.
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