Book Blog Habit: Varina by Charles Frazier

by Mike Wall

Cold Mountain, written by Charles Frazier, may be one of the best Civil War novels ever written. In his new novel, Varina, he adds to his reputation for lyricism, realism and for capturing character, in telling the story of Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America.

The novel is structured as a conversation (and interrogation) between Varina and a black man, James. Varina saved him from a beating and raised him with her own children during the final years of the Civil War. James visits her decades after the war’s end. He wants to check his fragmented childhood memory of events against hers. Her life story unspools from these conversations.

One anecdote illustrates the gulf of lived experience between James and Varina. James tells of a freed slave, Martha, now learning to read at fifty. Martha tended to her mistress’ needs day in and day out, but none of her ministrations mattered. Her mistress sold Martha’s ten-year-old daughter for $700. Every day thereafter until she was freed, “she had to touch with care the woman who [had] inflicted such pain.”

Upon being told this story, Varina said, “We’ve been doing that sort of thing to each other all through history, back past the pyramids.”  James, in response, says, “The godlike view is fine … but hearing a story like Martha’s made me want to kill somebody right then.”

Varina is a formidable woman – well educated, perceptive, strong minded, and one who struggles against a whole array of patronizing and threatening men. She is compassionate and principled, but she was also married to the President of a rebel country who fought a war meant to preserve the enslavement and suffering of millions of human beings. The center of the novel involves the layers of moral realization she must work through about her own complicity in profiting from and serving as a steward to slavery.