Varina, a novel about the South

No one writes better about the South today than Charles Frazier. The best-selling author of Cold Mountain gets more than just the flora and fauna right (though he is expert at that) he expresses the feeling of the South being part of America and yet apart from it.

His new novel, Varina, explores what makes the South different from the rest of the country by looking at the tumultuous life of Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy.

The daughter of a wastrel, she was married off to Jefferson Davis, a rising politician in antebellum Mississippi. Renowned for her wit and beauty, her years in Washington before the Civil War were the happiest of her life. But trouble was coming – she saw it in prophetic dreams.

A sense of doom settled over her and Jefferson as the South seceded. Both knew that the Confederacy was a sham enterprise.

Yet, Jefferson believed that the states had a right to quit the USA. More importantly, he asserted that slave owners had a right to do whatever they wanted with their property – it was guaranteed in the Constitution.

Jefferson led this nation into a disastrous war, one that smashed the lives of millions. As Richmond fell, Varina packed what remained of her family into a wagon and fled, nearly making it to Florida before she was caught.

Jefferson Davis never got his day in court to argue the legality of slavery; instead, he received exile and poverty. Varina Davis suffered further tragedies but reinvented herself as an author and advice columnist. Notable among her friendships was the widow of Ulysses Grant.

“The right side won,” she would say later in life.

Varina tells her story, jumping around in time, as she explores her memories in response to a visitor with a mystery of his own.

It’s a beautiful novel, an exploration of the moral cost of an immoral system. Like many of us, Varina doesn’t directly challenge the evil around her, though she knows that there will be a terrible price to pay. That’s what makes her voice contemporary and relevant for our own times.