‘Varina’ portrays prescient, conflicted heroine

Charles Frazier examines the South’s defeat through the eyes of the Confederacy’s complicated First Lady

She’s hooked on opioids, but it’s not a crisis.

OK, maybe it’s a tiny crisis, but who could fault her? Surely not Charles Frazier in his sympathetic portrait, “Varina,” the reimagined life of Varina Davis, the First Lady of the Confederacy, in which the most famous Rebel icons — even her husband — brushing up against her bustle, are swept aside like nine-pins.

Varina, or V, as the author of “Cold Mountain” (1997) refers to his heroine, spills a pinch of wee poppy into her wine. It brings her pleasure, relieving the trauma of grief — three of her six children with Jefferson Davis die in their early years.

But it also brings the agony of Delphic powers: In her “doom dreams,” slavery becomes a horrific landscape of “whipping posts like red fountains.” She foresees the historical cataclysm of the Civil War and its aftermath unfolding in advance, “our beautiful country full of ghosts haunting cornfields and cow pastures and night woods for centuries to come.”

The antebellum Varina may have developed oracular powers, but what does she see in Davis, a man whom, she admits, “I have wanted to kill many times for my own reasons”? And yet she stays with him until his death. Essentially it’s an arranged marriage, one that somehow lasts 45 years, half of them spent apart.

As for her genealogy, she describes it as “a lineage of crooks dating back to the Mayflower … a very long card game down in the lower decks.” In Natchez, where she grows up, she masters the usual Greek and Latin subjects associated with a gentleman’s education, becoming confident in her literary discourse with older men.

Mysteriously, her bankrupt daddy sends her down river to meet the gothic Joseph Davis, master of a 10,000-acre cotton plantation called Hurricane. In due course, she meets Old Joe’s brother, Jefferson; embers stir, and the rest might be explained by her favorite novels, “the ones where young women exist at that precise thrilling hinge of time, the making of a dreadful, possibly fatal choice.”

Passion is suppressed in “Varina.” She develops a romantic attachment for her brilliant tutor, Winchester, but his feelings remain half-cocked. Jefferson himself throbs when he stumbles across slippers belonging to his dead first wife, Knoxie; he faints dead away “from excess emotion.”

The author moves obscure characters like Winchester into the foreground of “Varina,” while big shots dither in the wings of Washington and Richmond. V disdains the sinister politics of the Confederate capital. She endures the nastiness of the city’s society ladies, who ridicule her dark complexion and intellectual enthusiasms. She hates the war and, finally, she hates the South. (“I’ll never return to Richmond until it’s feet first in a box.”)

Norman Mailer once wrote that a bestseller is “a perfect clock that ticks to its conclusion.” In “Varina,” the chronometer is a slow agrarian chase, slyly paced. Leaving Richmond in flames, Varina, with five children and a few others, head south in “battlefield ambulances,” trying to make it to Florida, then Havana. As the Federals are closing in, it’s as though they’re being pursued by dangerous vapors.

They reach Georgia — a “tall state when you aim to go top to bottom in wagons with a bunch of children.” Crossing the wake of Sherman’s locust-like crusade, they encounter a post-apocalyptic wasteland, which is where Jefferson catches up to them, drawing unwanted attention. Broke and hungry, the little band is run to ground in Irwinville, north of Tifton, with hardly so much as a pecan log between them.

Frazier’s plainspoken, though uncommon, prose draws up to density, stopping short, as if out of humility. When he’s at full-throttle, incredible declarations are tossed off as mere jottings. Lightning, for instance, has “a swelling sound like shredding metal … In the flashes, stacked parallel rows of sapsucker holes in the trunk bark — bands of black dots—appeared and vanished immediately like unreadable lines of ancient text, a false prophecy.”

He’s fond of unsparing examination: The CSA vice-president Alexander Stevens looks like “a mummified child.” Such sharpness is mollified by interpolations of down-home wisdom: “The frontier is no place for those who can’t afford to run.” And Frazier always delivers the stray poetic zinger (observation balloons are “great malignant bulbs”) or the odd correspondence (“black headed gulls standing solemn as deacons”).

Shortly before V’s death in 1906, an African-American teacher named James Blake interviewed her on seven Sundays at her residential hotel in Saratoga Springs. He was known as “Jimmie Limber” when he was growing up in the Davis’ Richmond household. He hopes to determine his real status — and his real name — by reuniting with V.

James’ depositions stabilize the novel’s structure as Frazier hops backwards, forwards and sideways over the course of V’s 80-year story. James is affable, but he demands to know if V was his owner, or if perhaps he was her “pet,” unpleasant questions she deflects, though it’s unclear if she really knows the answer.

If Frazier succeeds in finding a place for Varina Davis in the popular mind, he raises, through James’ interrogations, the issue of her complicity with evil — her fatal choice, as it were. She is exceedingly humane, though she never seems to reconcile the contradictory feelings she has about Southern slavery.

Today, the United States sees the example of its old secessionist republic as a cautionary tale, an alternative history that really happened. Whatever her shortcomings, Varina Davis understood that the Confederate States of America was a false nation in every sense. It was neither about honor nor constitutional principal, as claimed by its supporters. It was about money.

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