Charles Frazier’s first novel, Cold Mountain (1997), describes the repercussions of the Civil War on the ordinary people of the Confederacy. Frazier’s new novel, Varina, focuses on the other end of the social spectrum: the Southern elite who actually instigated the cataclysm. Frazier’s protagonist is Varina Howell Davis, the First Lady of the Confederacy. Varina feels ambivalent about the Southern cause from the start and suffers through the ravages of defeat, but she does not expect sympathy. She understands that “Being on the wrong side of history carries consequences.”
The novel opens in 1906 when a middle-aged African-American man, James Blake, seeks out Varina Davis, who is now living in New York, to confirm his identity. Blake remembers living in a white household in an atmosphere of comfort and privilege before being abruptly removed. Decades later, he reads a book called First Days Among the Contrabands (“contraband” being the Federal government’s term for freed slaves) and recognizes himself as the “small colored boy” sent by Mrs. Davis to the care of Union General Saxton. Called “Jimmie Limber” in his youth for his double-jointed wrists, Blake proves his identity to Varina by bending his fingers backward nearly to his forearm. His arrival provides the pretext for Varina to tell her life’s story, a heartbreaking tale that offers a fresh vantage on the conflict that rent the nation.
The central question of James Blake’s life—why would a prominent white family adopt a black child from the streets of Richmond?—resonates throughout the novel as Varina recalls her own past and its variation from stereotype. Though her family is from Mississippi, Varina spends a formative year in Philadelphia and is given a classical education by her Princeton-trained tutor. As an adult, her happiest times are spent in Washington, D.C., when Jefferson Davis is a senator and later Secretary of War. Her social calendar is filled, and her dream of occupying the White House seems within reach. After Secession, however, she is forced to settle for the “Gray House” of Richmond, the Confederacy’s executive residence, where she reluctantly makes a home for her growing family.
Frazier juxtaposes the peaceful 1906 setting at a health resort in Saratoga Springs, New York, with the devastation visited upon the South during the last months of the Civil War. With her remaining children, including Jimmie, and a small retinue of devoted attendants, Varina flees Richmond by horse and wagon through a region devastated by Sherman’s march.
Frazier’s description of the South in the aftermath of the war resembles recent post-apocalyptic fiction in which military violence combines with ecological catastrophe to destroy all remnants of civilization. Pockets of survivors band together in secluded enclaves, their paranoia a predictable by-product of having to ward off waves of scavengers loosed by the Union’s scorched-earth policy. In Varina, as in Cold Mountain, danger lurks everywhere, and human beings are reduced to barbarism. Frazier’s novels exude a scent of Old Testament vengeance, as if God has condemned the land to receive righteous judgment for the compounded sins of many generations. The wrong side of history, indeed.
Though Varina is the novel’s central figure, Frazier provides a sidelong portrait of Jefferson Davis as a delusional egotist whose skewed sense of honor has cost countless lives. Socially awkward and emotionally stunted, he has never overcome the grief of losing his first wife, Knoxie, who contracted malaria on their honeymoon. Varina can forgive his emotional impairment, but his maniacal campaign to “prolong the war” in the face of certain defeat is a crime beyond the scope of her mercy.
Varina herself comes across as down-to-earth and visionary, weary from hardship but inured to disappointment. “At sixteen,” she tells James, “you make choices and don’t always know you’re making them. Some don’t matter, but a surprisingly large lot of them haunt forever. Each choice shuts off whole worlds that might have been.”
Frazier’s structure, decade-hopping from 1906 back to the 1840s, enables his protagonist to meditate on the institution of slavery and its lingering effects. The crucial wedge between Varina and her husband is Davis’s refusal to acknowledge that the “days of building and maintaining fortunes based on enslavement were passing quickly.” In Varina’s view, civilization is a ticklish parlor trick, “a showman spinning a fine Spode dinner plate on a long dowel.” Clinging to archaic institutions is the “puff of breath” that brings the whole act crashing down.
Sean Kinch grew up in Austin and attended Stanford. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He now teaches English at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville.