By Angie Georgeff
We received a large book order last week, so we will highlight two books this week, linked by women who defied the expectations of their times. For our fans of historical fiction, we have James Carroll’s “The Cloister.” Set in medieval cloisters and The Cloisters museum in New York City, this novel entwines the forbidden romance between 12th century philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard and his brilliant young student Eloise d’Argenteuil with the friendship between a priest and a survivor of the Holocaust in the aftermath of World War II.
The Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was constructed of several sections of medieval monasteries shipped over from France. It houses the Met’s collections of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, sculpture and decorative arts, so the two worlds merge effortlessly. Father Michael Kavanagh meets museum docent Rachel Vedette when he pops into the Cloisters to escape a rainstorm. Their acquaintance steadily blossoms as they share memories of their regrets and the loved ones they have lost.
Charles Frazier, author of “Cold Mountain,” turns again to the Civil War with “Varina.” At 18, Varina Howell, the well-educated daughter of an impecunious planter, became the second wife of the much older Jefferson Davis. She bore her husband six children and became the first lady of the Confederate States of America when her husband was inaugurated in 1861. Just four years later, she and her children were forced to flee Richmond when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Perhaps understandably, her embrace of the “lost cause” was less fervent than her husband’s.
With only one of her six children surviving, Varina lived in a Saratoga Springs rest home in her old age. Her story gradually unfolds in visits and conversations with James Blake, an African-American man she took in as a young child and raised with her own children.
You just never know what you will find when you start tracing your pedigree. My great grandmother’s family connects me distantly by marriage to Jefferson Davis – not through Varina Howell, but through his first wife Sarah Knox Taylor. Sarah was the daughter of President Zachary Taylor. Tragically, she died of yellow fever within a year of her marriage to Davis. Sarah’s mother, Margaret Mackall Smith, would give Pascagoula, Mississippi, the town where I lived before moving here, the dubious distinction of being the town where a former first lady died. If you would like to explore your connections, join us at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 26, to learn the ins and outs of FamilySearch.org. For more information, please call the library at 743-6533.