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'Varina' imagines the life of Jefferson Davis's widow in the aftermath of the Civil War

'Varina' can be seen as a reminder that a national reckoning over the legacy of slavery has yet to take place.

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Varina
By Charles Frazier
Ecco
368 pp.

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“I’ve come to accept that our debt may stretch to one of those generational Bible curses,” says Varina Davis, the title character in Varina, Charles Frazier’s new novel. The wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis is speaking about the debt her husband owes for lives lost in the Civil War. But she’s also speaking of her own debt, as someone who enjoyed the benefits of a society built on the backs of enslaved people.

Frazier follows to a large degree the historical record of Varina’s life, weaving her actual words into the book’s dialogue along with those from his own imagination. He faced a more difficult task in “Varina” than in “Cold Mountain,” his first novel, in which Inman, the lead character, was not modeled on a real person but inspired by family lore. Varina’s story is more complicated than Inman’s: Instead of trying to forget the war, she feels an obligation to constantly recall the fundamental moral failures that led up to it. “Remembering doesn’t change anything – it will always have happened. But forgetting won’t erase it either,” she says.

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Varina takes on this burden precisely because her husband refuses to acknowledge his own culpability. A prideful man, Jefferson can’t admit to being wrong, nor does he ever apologize for his decisions, which resulted in so much bloodshed on both sides. Varina had premonitions of the South’s defeat. She told a friend that “the way it would all play out was that the Southern states would secede and cobble together a breakaway country and would make Jeff its president and it would all fail disastrously.”

Not surprisingly, given Varina’s sentiments, the Davises’ marriage was a rocky one. But it also had periods of calm, during which Varina bore six children, five of whom predeceased her. Despite her antipathy to many of Jefferson’s ideas, Varina completed his memoir after his death in 1889. She later tells an acquaintance, “When I wrote Jeff’s memoir, it felt like solitary confinement inside his head.”

The person to whom Varina, nearing the end of her life, confides all these memories is a middle-aged African-American man, Jimmie, who as a small boy was taken in by Varina and lived in the Confederate White House in Richmond, Va. (As hard as it may be to believe, the historical Jimmie really existed, and he lived with the Davis family and was treated as one of their own children.) Varina lost track of him when the family was captured after the fall of Richmond.

In the novel, Frazier imagines Jimmie, now called James, as an adult searching for clues about his past. As James and Varina talk during a series of Sunday afternoon visits, he becomes not only a seeker of information but also a teacher on the subject of black people. Varina may have regrets and misgivings about the war, but she still carries more than a whiff of white privilege that makes her ignorant of how African-Americans experienced slavery. James sets her straight.

He calls her out when she reminisces about “those days when we all just took care of each other,” asking who she is referring to as “we.” If she meant slaves, he says, “you only remember what they allowed you to remember.... [T]hey kept their misery to themselves.... Think of it as a great gift, a mark of affection. Their protection of your memory.” Varina’s tart rejoinder: “Let’s don’t start getting ironic with each other.”

“Varina” can be read on a number of levels. Many people will enjoy the tale of a whip-smart and sharp-witted woman who nearly outran federal bounty hunters after the fall of Richmond. Others will be fascinated by the story of the difficult marriage between these two strong-willed people. On a more subtle level – and Frazier’s comments to an interviewer lend themselves to such a reading – “Varina” can be seen as a reminder that a national reckoning over the legacy of slavery has yet to take place.

Frazier’s Varina recognizes that her participation in, and acceptance of, the culture of her birth make her complicit in the enslavement of human beings. She didn’t need to personally own slaves to be culpable. And her rejection of the premise of slavery did not make her any less responsible.

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Frazier shows in Varina’s story that regret is only the first step. Much harder is the process of coming to terms with the burdens of slavery. The harmful effects are felt by the descendants not only of enslaved people but also of those who profited from their toil. As Frazier said in the interview, “The debates over the legacy of the Civil War [are] not going away, and I think it’s ... because we haven’t managed to resolve those issues of race and slavery that have been haunting us for 150 years....”

“Varina” is a challenging novel and, while not as readily appealing and as flowingly written as “Cold Mountain,” it provokes thought and encourages reflection on one of the most difficult issues of our time.
April Austin regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.