Frazier is back with a new historical novel that reads like poetry
By D.G. Martin
Charles Frazier’s blockbuster first novel, Cold Mountain, marked its 20th anniversary last year. It won the National Book Award in 1997 and became a popular and Academy Award-winning film starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renée Zellweger. From Cold Mountain and the books that followed, Thirteen Moons and Nightwoods, Frazier gained recognition as North Carolina’s most admired writer of literary fiction since Thomas Wolfe.
Frazier’s many fans celebrated the April release of his latest novel, Varina, based on the life of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ wife. But, because his most recent previous novel, Nightwoods, had come out in 2011, they wondered why he had made them wait so long. The simple answer: Frazier refuses to work fast. Every word of every chapter of every one of his four books was reviewed, rewritten, replaced and restored by him to make the final product just right. It’s that process that makes Varina a book so full of rich and lovely prose it could pass for poetry. And well worth the wait.
Because Varina is historical fiction, Frazier faced a challenge similar to the one Wiley Cash encountered in his recent book, The Last Ballad. Writing about a real person — textile union activist Ella May Wiggins in Cash’s case or Varina Davis in Frazier’s book — limits an author’s freedom to create and imagine without limits. The facts of history set firm and solid boundaries.
On the other hand, those real historical facts provide the framework within which Cash and Frazier, both, have succeeded in developing interesting and believable characters. Varina takes us back to the 1800s and the Civil War, a period it shares with Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons. The central character of the new book is Varina Howell Davis, until now an obscure Civil War footnote. Frazier refers to her as “V.”
He builds V’s story around an unusual fact. While living in Richmond as first lady of the Confederacy, she took in a young mixed race boy she called Jimmie. She raised him alongside her own children. At the end of the Civil War, Union troops took 6-year-old Jimmie away from V, and she never learned what happened to him.
Frazier begins his story 40 years later at a resort-spa-hotel-hospital in Saratoga Springs, New York, where V is residing. James Blake, a light-skinned, middle-aged African-American, has read about Jimmie. His memories are very dim, but he begins to think he might be that same Jimmie and sets out to visit V at Saratoga Springs.
When Blake calls on V at the hotel, she is suspicious, having been the victim of various con artists who attempted to exploit her fame. But something clicks. “She works at remembrance, looks harder at Blake’s broad forehead, brown skin, curling hair graying at the temples. She tries to cast back four decades to the war.”
Blake visits V for several Sundays, and Frazier builds his story on the growing friendship and the memories they share. During the course of Blake’s visits, V remembers her teenage years in Natchez, Mississippi; her courtship and marriage to Davis; life on his plantation while Davis is often away in military service or politics; living in Washington as wife of a U.S. senator and Cabinet official; being the first lady of the Confederacy; and her post-Civil War life when she becomes friends with the widow of Ulysses Grant and writes a column for a New York newspaper.
These are important subplots, but the book’s most compelling action develops in V’s flight from Richmond when it falls to Union troops at the end of the Civil War. In the book’s second chapter, V and Blake begin to recall their journey southward. As V prepares to leave Richmond on the train, Davis tells her she would be coming back soon because “General Lee would find a way.” But Lee does not find a way this time.
V’s family, including Jimmie, servants and Confederate officials, travel to Charlotte, where an angry mob confronts them at the rail station. Evading the mob there, they “traveled southwest down springtime Carolina roads, red mud and pale leaves on poplar trees only big as the tip of your little finger, a green haze at the tree line. They fled like a band of Gypsies — a ragged little caravan of saddle horses and wagons with hay and horse feed and a sort of kitchen wagon and another for baggage. Two leftover battlefield ambulances for those not a-saddle. The band comprised a white woman, a black woman, five children, and a dwindling supply of white men — which V called Noah’s animals, because as soon as they realized the war was truly lost, they began departing two by two.”
Their goal is escape to Florida and then Havana.
Supplies have shrunk and their money has become worthless. Rumors circulate that their caravan has a hoard of gold from the Confederate treasury and that there will be a big reward for their capture.
Frazier writes, “In delusion, bounty hunters surely rode hard behind faces, dark in the shadows of deep hat brims, daylight striking nothing but jawbones and chin grizzle, dirty necks, and once-white shirt collars banded with extrusions of their own amber grease.”
Like Inman’s trek toward home in Cold Mountain, V and her companions confront adventure and terror at almost every stop.
In Georgia, low on food and soaking wet, the group finds refuge in a seemingly deserted plantation house. As they settle in, two or three families of formerly enslaved people appear, accompanied by the son of their former owner, Elgin, a “white boy, who grew less beard than the fuzz on a mullein leaf.”
Elgin sasses and threatens two former Confederate naval cadets, Bristol and Ryland, who are accompanying V’s group. He blames them for losing the war.
Ryland responds in kind, “You’ve not ever worn a uniform or killed anybody, and you’re not going to start now. Have you even had your first drink of liquor?”
Ryland and Bristol laugh when the boy reaches into his pants and pulls out a Derringer pistol and points it at Ryland.
“And then Elgin twitched a finger, almost a nervous impulse, and an awful instant of time later, Ryland was gone for good.”
Frazier writes that Ryland had been transformed in a matter of seconds “to being a dead pile of meat and bones and gristle without a spark. Three or four swings of the pendulum and he was all gone.”
Instantly Bristol guns down Elgin. Before moving on, V’s group and the former slaves bury Elgin and Ryland, two more unnecessary casualties in a war that simply would not end.
With V’s group back on the road, we know their attempt to escape is doomed to failure. But Frazier’s dazzling descriptions give us hope, hope that is quickly dashed when Federal troops capture V and take Jimmie away from her.
Readers who loved Frazier’s luscious language and compelling characters in his earlier books will agree that Varina was worth the long wait.
But what are they to make of V, her husband, and the Confederate heroes who are bit players in the new book?
Perhaps Frazier leaves a clue with the final words, as James Blake remembers what V says to him on one of their visits at Saratoga Springs.
“When the time is remote enough nobody amounts to much.”
D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.