In his fourth novel, Charles Frazier returns to familiar stomping grounds, the same ones he trod with such mastery in Cold Mountain—the South during the final days of the Civil War.
VARINA centers on Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. In bringing her to life, the author has resurrected America’s most forgotten first lady and given us a dazzling heroine.
The novel opens in Saratoga Springs, New York; the year is 1906, and ” V” (as she is called throughout) is 80 years-of-age. One Sunday she receives a visit from a middle-aged black man, who identifies himself as “Jimmie,” the young child she had rescued long ago from a beating in the streets of Richmond.
Now, some 40 years later, James, as he is known, has come to ask V about his early years—and hers. Over a month of Sundays (actually, six Sundays) and under James’s gentle prodding, the two piece together as best they can a fractured history.
Raised in Natchez by a family of dwindling fortune and social prestige, V is married off at 18 to Jefferson Davis, a dour widower 19 years her senior. But in a delicious irony, as Jeff’s political career takes off, V finds herself at the pinnacle of Washington society. At 20, she is feted for her intelligence and charm, traits that earn her the admiration of the nation’s elite.
But events intervene: V finds herself first lady of the Confederacy, an enterprise she views as a fool’s errand, doomed to fail. Several years later when events bear her out, V bundles up the children, including Jimmie, and escapes a burning Richmond in a horse-drawn ambulance.
Traveling through the Sherman-ravaged landscape, their goal is to get to Florida and then Cuba—hoping to avoid Union soldiers, marauders, and deserters on the way. The long trek is beautifully recounted and (along with the story of V’s youth) is Frazier at his absolute best.
Back to the future, in 1906, James’s role as interlocutor elicits these long buried memories. But his other role, as catalyst, raises painful questions and forces V to confront them.
For years after the war, V claimed publicly that “the right side won.” Yet privately she acknowledges her participation in a culture that believed it was morally just to own people as private property—a right protected by the U.S. Constitution. So her husband fervently believed.
What, then, is V’s culpability—to what degree is she morally complicit in slavery and accountable for those who died in the war? While she wishes for redemption, she also knows that “Being on the wrong side of history carries consequences.”
These questions lie at the heart of the novel and still speak to us. More than 150 years after the Civil War, we remain haunted by its memories—and by its ultimate meaning. Near the end of the novel, as James boards a train to Richmond, a conductor orders him to sit in a car toward the rear—in the one labeled “colored.”
So there you have it. Slavery ended—only to be replaced by something nearly as repugnant. After all the blood and brutality, what did the war accomplish?
In Varina, Charles Frazier has given us a remarkable heroine, a thrilling work of historical fiction, and proven once again that he is one of America’s finest writers. Highly recommended.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.