Charles Frazier’s first novel, “Cold Mountain,” was not only a massive bestseller about the Civil War, it was also a critical success. It won a 1997 National Book Award and was adapted for an Academy Award-winning film. In the 20 years since that spectacular debut, Frazier has published sparingly. But now, with his superb new novel, “Varina,” he has circled back to the Civil War with a story about Varina Howell Davis, the wife of the only president of the Confederate States of America.
In some ways, “Varina” can be read as an antidote to “Gone With the Wind.” At 18, Varina Howell marries the Mississippi landowner Jefferson Davis, a melancholic widower 19 years her senior. A stirring orator in public, though awkward and remote in private, Davis promptly leaves his young wife to fight in the Mexican-American War. Returning home, Davis makes a political career of his military experience, representing Mississippi in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, as well as serving as the Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce before being elected president of the Confederacy in 1861.
Her husband’s career places Varina — or V as friends and family call her — at the center of events and conditions leading to the shaky rise and catastrophic fall of the Confederacy. When Union forces close in on Richmond at the end of the war, V and her children flee southward with bounties on their heads, an entire nation in pursuit, hoping to find a safe harbor in Cuba.
Among her children is Limber Jimmy, a young mixed-race boy whom V has adopted, his nickname deriving from his double-jointed wrists. They are separated after V’s capture in 1865, and the novel begins in 1906, when a teacher named James Blake tracks down the elderly V in a Saratoga Springs health spa. He convinces V that he was Limber Jimmy. “I keep trying to remember that journey,” he tells her, “but all I come up with are those brief flashes. I’m not sure whether they’re real or if I’m inventing them.” Over a stretch of six Sundays, James returns to visit V. His questions and V’s memories combine, both of them coming to understand their separate experiences with increasing accuracy, nuance and insight.
As V recalls her life, she notes unquestioned assumptions, the unanticipated consequences. “At sixteen — other than overwhelming scorn and rage – what power do you control? For the pimply boys V knew, it was guns and their prospects for inheritance. Girls had their bodies and minds. That age, you make choices and don’t always know you’re making them.” But “being on the wrong side of history carries consequences. V lives that truth every day. If you’ve done terrible things, lived a terrible way, profited from pain in the face of history’s power to judge, then guilt and loss accrue. . . . Those were times that required choosing a side — and then, sooner or later, history asks, which side were you on?”
This is V’s story, but Blake is a cogent critic who keeps her memories anchored in others’ reality. He has fared well in the years since their separation, but his skin is too dark to remain safely in Saratoga overnight. “You’re not close enough to passing,” a black redcap warns him at the train depot. “Sundown’s probably their borderline. Like little towns bragging no black man ever spent the night there and lived to tell it.”
Frazier’s historical research generally sits lightly on the story, almost always embedded gracefully in dialogue, a small telling incident or a sharp memory of kindness or brutality. His prose is both of the characters’ time and perfectly evocative. There is a man whose face is “the color of ham fat.” Soldiers suffering from dysentery feel “their bowels working in the manner of a strong woman wringing water out of a dishrag.” The Mississippi air is “so wet catfish could survive in it.”
This novel has much to offer those of us who are living through what Carl Bernstein has taken to calling a “cold civil war,” but in the end it is a finely wrought novel that will reward rereading. Elegiac without being exculpatory, it is an indictment of complicity without ignoring the historic complexity of the great evil at the core of American history.
Mary Doria Russell is the author of six novels, including “Doc” and “Epitaph.”
By Charles Frazier
Ecco. 356 pp. $27.99