- - Thursday, July 12, 2018


By Charles Frazier

Ecco/HarperCollins, $27, 356 pages

If one reads “Gone with the Wind” as a sweet elegy for the Civil War, then Charles Frazier’s “Varina” is its bitter obituary. No “rest in peace” here, just be dead and be damned — in the title character’s simmering view that Dixie plutocrats created the conflict through stupidity and pride. The Mississippi lady’s message is clear: Some things are right, some wrong; slavery was an unmitigated sin and secession an ungodly error. Yet neither life nor history is so simple, as this novel proves with tragic elegance, shimmering nuance and heart-stopping surprises.

It relates the reunion between Varina Davis, long-lived widow of the Confederacy’s only president, and Jimmy Limber, the urchin she rescued from a beating, spiriting him away like a whipped puppy. Black, bright and eager, he joined her family and fit right in until he became “a son to me.” Fifty years have passed since these two souls were wrenched apart at war’s end. Jimmie has made good as a teacher and after reading a certain memoir tracks down Mrs. Davis who is quietly ensconced in a residential hotel in upstate New York.

Mr. Frazier’s novel dances between 1865 and 1906 as Jimmie and Varina — now James and V — try to reconstruct their past. The alternating times are brilliantly framed, a masterpiece of literary legerdemain. Another dance is more awkward: The byplay between historical fact and unbridled fiction, both the book’s fascinating strength and most irritating weakness.

It’s not clear what actually happened and what Mr. Frazier invented — opaque by the author’s design, his mean trick and perfect foil. For example, his bibliography, which is included in the acknowledgments, pointedly omits Elizabeth Hyde Botume’s “First Days Amongst the Contrabands,” a real book published in 1893 that James names early in the narrative. Indeed, he carries a worn copy like an amulet each time he visits V.

Conventional histories depict many figures less intriguingly than Mr. Frazier animates them here: Deeply flawed Jeff Davis, a middling planter turned congressman, senator, secretary of war and then prideful president of the breakaway states; Varina’s bosom friend Mary Chesnut, the sly seductress in antebellum Washington, a spry hostess, spy, provocateur; and many others.

In prose that is luminous, serpentine and sinister, “Varina” recalls Mr. Frazier’s masterpiece “Cold Mountain.” While that was composed as an epic trek, the odyssey here fills only part of the book: When Richmond burns, Varina flees with her passel of children, family retainers and Jimmie, driving a pair of ambulance wagons almost to Florida toward sanctuary in Cuba.

This harrowing trip doesn’t end well. Varina wends through Carolina and Georgia, crossing earth scorched by Sherman and now marauded by Yankee deserters, Southern diehards and packs of dogs becoming feral enough to “start taking down stray children.” That the little band survives is Varina’s triumph.

An extraordinary woman in Mr. Frazier’s telling, before the war she weathers tyrannical relatives and socialites who question her complexion. She is “too tall, too dark, too slim, too educated, too opinionated.” She can read Greek, charm a bachelor president, outfox vigilantes and keep her dignity before a Union officer who could “have her stripped to the skin and searched again for any reason — including his own amusement.”

Like many ladies then, she is addicted to medicinal opium. Like few, I imagine, when nursing battle-maimed soldiers she once “whispered into a boy’s ear like a sweetheart, Walk into the big green woods. I’ll wait here and watch until you’re gone. She said it hardly louder than a sigh and — like a magic spell — the boy died right then. And then that young man blown apart by the sorry war became young and whole forever.”

Given a white gentlewoman and an inquiring black man, the novel acutely involves race. V “grew up where and when she did. From earliest memory, owning other people was a given.” When James asks if he was born a slave and she dodges, he replies “The answer won’t change how I feel, but it matters. It’s a fact about my life I need to know.”

Given that this heroine conquers Washington before the war and survives her husband’s imprisonment after, it is a political novel with modern resonance aplenty. It proves the price of imbecilic governance, as James writes of Jefferson Davis “He did as most politicians do — except more so — corrupt our language and symbols of freedom, pervert our heroes. Because like so many of them, he held no beloved idea or philosophy as tightly as his money purse.”

The bonds these disparate friends reweave is wonderful to behold, respite in an exquisite dark narrative laced with glitter, love and wisdom:

“Many in the capital and elsewhere remained unsure whether they were engaged in a grand experiment or a pathetically inept confidence game.”

“Give a real Yankee one little dried pea and three thimbles and he can buy groceries. But give him a war, and he’ll make a fortune to last centuries”

“Except time flows one way and drags us with it no matter how hard we paddle upstream.”

Inspiring, for an obituary.

• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Chevy Chase, Maryland, writes about American history and culture.

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