‘Varina’ asks if the First Lady of the Confederacy can be woke

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Varina Davis and her wagon train of children, former slaves and ex-confederates had nearly crossed out of Georgia when her husband, Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy, caught up to them, much to her disappointment. The Confederacy had just crumbled, and they were days from crossing into what Varina called “Terra Florida.” This land promised passage to Havana and with it, a life free from the baggage of being the former first lady of a failed nation.

Charles Frazier, author of “Varina” and “Cold Mountain”

But then Davis arrived, broken and desperate and unwilling to heed his wife’s warning that his presence was putting everyone in danger. Two days later, federal troops captured them all. But the biggest casualty of the Davis’s failed escape was not the Confederate president or his wife but a young, racially mixed child that the Davises called Jimmy Limber. Varina had taken Jimmy in during the early days of the Confederacy and raised him with her own children. Their bond intensified after the Davises’ middle son, Joe, died. But in the turbulent days after their capture Varina realized the danger of traveling with a dark-skinned child and begged a sympathetic Northern general to take Jimmy in. She never saw him again.

Charles Frazier’s novel Varina imagines a world in which Varina and Jimmy Limber, later known as James Blake, reunite 40 years later in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She’s a widow, seeking relief from a 60-year morphine habit. He, a dapper teacher in Albany with ties to a prominent Harlem family, has recently come across “First Days Among the Contrabands,” a (real) book that devotes a chapter to “Jimmy Limber.” He thinks that boy might be him, but when he tries to remember details “all I come up with are those brief flashes. I’m not sure whether they’re real or if I’m inventing them.”

Over the course of six Sundays, Varina tries to fill in the gaps for Blake. And he tries, but does not always succeed, in challenging her interpretation of the past.

Stories about the Confederacy traditionally cast its fall as a tragedy, whether it’s the late 19th Century literature of the “Lost Cause,” or more recent tales of hubris and cruelty and retribution.

Frazier, to his credit, has let go of any desire to romanticize this period in American history. Through Varina’s eyes, Richmond is a dreary place. She refers to their home there as “The Gray House,” a derisive play on The White House, calling parts of it “dim, even in daylight.”

But Frazier hasn’t quite let go of the tropes that fuel these stories. There are racist slave masters whose devotion to the cause costs them everything. There is Varina, the steeliest of southern belles, who leads her band of refugees on a journey that would have brought Pa Ingalls to his knees. And there is James Blake, the wise black man whose unimpeachable character further highlights an uncomfortable fact—that his sole purpose in this book seems to be teaching the older white woman at the center of it a lesson about her past.

Of course, as far as southern belles go, Varina Davis is a progressive one. She reads the Greeks and talks about literature with gay male friends. She opposes the war, and if she’s not quite ready to publicly condemn slavery, she’s deeply uncomfortable with what she calls that “fundamental moral failure.” And, of course, she adopts Jimmy Limber, later brushing off his race as “that outer hundredth fraction of” his body.

But one of the book’s failures is that Frazier never lets this character, whether he’s Jimmy Limber or James Blake, be more than a physical manifestation of Varina’s progressive views.

This is surprising because Frazier seems highly aware that this decade is a flashpoint for American race relations, a resurgence of the issues that drove 19th century politics.

Varina is Frazier’s fourth novel and his second about the Civil War, after his critically acclaimed 1997 debut, Cold Mountain. In an interview with NPR in April, he said, “After Cold Mountain, I never thought I wanted to write about the Civil War again. But as the past three or four years have shown, it’s not done with us — as a country, as a culture.”

If someone is looking to revisit the Civil War, especially through a lens of today’s issues, it’s easy to see how Varina Davis’s point of view, in many ways more in tune with a typical 21st century woman than a 19th century one, would be a tempting place to start.

But in his attempt to let the reader know that this is one Confederate character that progressive Americans can admire, Frazier scrubs Varina of all those complications and contradictions that make characters interesting. The heart of the novel is the flashbacks, and the Varina who anchors them is irreproachable—resilient and wise as a teenager marrying Jefferson Davis and as his older widow. Yes, there’s a comeuppance for her involvement in the war, illustrated by decades of financial insecurity, but the reader understands it is her husband’s fault not hers.

Since the 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston changed the national conversation about Confederate monuments, local governments around the country have removed more than 200 of them. But there’s also been vocal resistance to the effort, with the more moderate voices of that movement, arguing for “contextualization of history” over outright removal of it. The University of Mississippi began this process in 2016, adding brass engravings to explain the fraught racial histories of campus landmarks.

Frazier has done something similar with Varina. He has told the story of the Confederacy’s first lady, but he’s changed the context, making sure the reader of this book, like the reader of a brass plaque, understands the main character is uncomfortable with the power structures that fueled her ascent.

Of course, these plaques don’t change the fact that these monuments still stand, much like Varina’s cynicism doesn’t change the fact that this book is still a Confederate woman’s view of America’s racial history, and a story where black characters exist to serve white ones.

The story of Jimmy Limber has gained popularity in the last few decades as admirers of Jefferson Davis have used Limber to argue that neither Davis, nor his war, were racist. In 2008, the Sons of Confederate Veterans commissioned a $100,000, life-sized bronze statue of Davis, holding hands with Limber and their son Joe, who died at age five. It stands at Beauvoir in Biloxi, Davis’s last home and home of the Mississippi chapter.

Of course, the real Limber was far more than a projection of his surrogate parents’ opinions about race. He was a very real little boy who likely grew into a real man, one whose early experiences with the Davises and later life in boarding schools could have given him a unique perspective on the Confederacy and its aftermath. If he and Varina had ever met, his take on her could have been revealing.

National Book Award winner Charles Frazier will discuss “Varina” at 1:30 p.m. in the Galloway Foundry for “A Conversation with Charles Frazier.” He will be interviewed by author and Square Books co-owner Lisa Howorth.