Varina by Charles Frazier, a review

Varina is a beautiful book, because Charles Frazier writes some of the most beautiful, lyrical sentences of any author writing prose today.  His words force the reader to slow down and savor every lovely description, to open oneself to the metaphors and allegories hidden within.

And yet, the book made me uncomfortable.

I don’t know what I wanted from Frazier.  Maybe I would have been happier if he had delivered a heavy-handed condemnation of Varina Howell Davis, wife and widow of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But in this work of historical fiction, Frazier presents a woman who is complicated and introspective, and of course I value such historical insight.  But was Varina contrite?  Could anyone in her position be contrite enough to satisfy a 21stcentury reader?  Probably not.

The novel begins with a middle-aged black man named James Blake coming to visit the elderly widowed Mrs. Davis at a residential hotel in upstate New York.  Blake has vague memories of his childhood, but he has learned that he may have spent some time with V (as she is known to family and friends). He has reason to believe that he was cared for as if he were her own son, housed in the nursery with her other children, and then taken with them at the end of the war as V, the children, a slave or two, and a few of her husband’s aides, fled from Richmond, traveling south, hoping to make it to Florida where they might board a ship and seek refuge in Cuba. They never made it.  They were captured by Union troops in Georgia.  Despite V’s pleas, James Blake—known then as Jimmy—was separated from the other children and they never saw him again.

Frazier noted in an interview that the existence of this black child was historically documented. With this as a jumping-off point, he imagined a meeting of V and Jimmy at some future point after the child was grown. So here is fictional James Blake, an educated 20thcentury, well-off (for his time and station) black man, come to represent the modern-day reader with his queries about the past.  The novel initially leaves us a bit unmoored regarding time frame, but later we learn (SPOILER) that James Blake’s arrival is just months before Varina’s death in 1906.  At this point, V has no interest in rehashing a painful past, but when she becomes convinced of Blake’s identity as the child she cared for deeply, she is willing to delve into memories, and eager for his company, particularly perhaps because all but one of her own six children are dead.

Blake comes to visit over six successive Sundays, and Varina’s life story spools out with fits and starts as she relates it to James, shifting back and forth in time, but always returning once again to the arduous journey south as they fled through the horrific spectacle of a devastated and depleted southern landscape.

V is a sympathetic character through all this, a charming hostess, a tolerant, patient wife and mother, a kind woman aching for the losses on both sides of the war.  She has her blind spots, and James Blake points them out, even as we might do.  Yet his memories of her are fond, and he is forgiving.  As America has always been forgiving of white people.

Admittedly I learned much I did not know.  For example, Jefferson Davis philosophized that slavery was actually a humane system, because labor and capital were one and the same, theoretically compelling plantation owners to treat their human property well, if for no other reason than to protect their investment.  Contrast this with northern capitalist factory owners who could burn through laborers, paying them a pittance for long hours, and when they could no longer perform simply hire more of the eager impoverished immigrants who were arriving daily on our shores.  An interesting idea, but obviously a false choice.  Arguments about who exploited whom in a more humane way are hardly relevant in our present-day society that claims to believe in equality and civil rights for all.

Frazier presents Varina as a complex and flawed person, yet in a quick glance at Amazon reviews I discovered many readers came away praising the First Lady of the Confederacy. I find this disturbing.  One reviewer even called her a feminist ahead of her time.  I just don’t see it!  Yes, she was clever and well educated (as befit a woman of her class).  When she fell on hard times she used her wiles and wit to do what was necessary to protect and support her family and herself.  Such tenacity may be admirable, but I saw nothing indicating that she cared about women’s suffrage, or the rights of any woman beyond her own circle.

Again I admit I am judging her by the standards of my own rather than her time.  But I think we have to do this now.  Racism is becoming blatant again, and it’s time for all of us to confront the roles we have played in perpetuating its subtler forms.

To reiterate what I said at the beginning, Varina is a beautiful book.  I would not discourage anyone from reading it.  But if you do decide to read it, I urge you to please check out a particular episode of Reveal,a podcast made in California that generally is broadcast twice weekly on Capital Public Radio here in Sacramento.  The December 8, 2018, episode features two reporters—one black, one white—who pay a visit to the Davis estate in Biloxi, Mississippi, where Jefferson and Varina lived together after the war until Jefferson’s death in 1889. The two reporters come away feeling an alternative history is being taught to tourists and school children there; a history in which the south was minding its own business when it was brutally attacked by the north, and in which the Davises loved their slaves, treated them like family, and the slave holders were loved in return by those they held in bondage.  Interviews with the trustees and supporters of the estate repeat what we have long heard: the Confederacy is part of our history. We don’t want to deny history by taking down statues and dismantling monuments, now do we?  Yes, the podcast agrees, this is our history.  But who is telling the story?  What spin are they putting on it?  And who is paying for it?

Here’s a link to the podcast.  You may also read a transcript there if you prefer.  Reveal:  Monumental Lies

I’d like to recommend two more books:

Property by Valerie Martin is a novel of the antebellum south told from the point of view of the very unhappy wife of a plantation owner. To me, this story dramatizes in a very compelling way the racism and misogyny of the time, showing us the roots of hatred that persist today.  See my review on Goodreads.

And finally, White Fragility:  Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo is simply amazing.  All white people need to read this book.  Please read it.  I’ll write more about it soon, in the meantime, you can learn more here.

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