June 2, 2020

Reading Uncertainly? ‘Varina’ by Charles Frazier

Slip back some 120 years and reconsider our Civil War through the eyes and mind of the wife of Jefferson Davis, Varina. This is Charles Frazier’s latest gripping and, often hilarious, novel.  Married to the much older man at 18, she gives us a stimulation of memories of her life with the Confederate President first in Richmond, then an escape attempt to Cuba by way of Florida at war’s end, then her later experiences in the South, and, finally her residences in New York City and summers in Saratoga Springs, NY, after Davis’s death.

And always accentuating her story is that of James Blake, a young mixed-race orphan she rescues one day in Richmond, brings into her home with her children, and carries with her on their escape south. He returns to her life in New York, trying to resurrect memories of their early days together. It was a volatile life, as she explains, “Thinking how all the lesser increments of the time between then and now — years, months, days, hours, moments – drained constantly into the black sump where time resides after it’s been used up, whether used well or squandered.” Varina goes on, “ … lives rarely have plots, but sometimes they find shape.”

Constantly she reminds us at that period, it was always “them or us,” referring to the dominance of color. As she notes to James, we are, “witnesses needing to apply skin color to every personal transaction.”  Varina describes the long-term working relationship between Jefferson Davis and his black slave, “that the fundamental note of their long history together condensed to a single fact – one member of the friendship was owner and the other was both labor and capital.”

Has that changed much today?

Frazier’s language is challenging and lyrical. Challenging thus, “an eidolon took her place” (an idealized person, specter or phantom), and “all gaumed up beyond belief.” (smeared or covered with a gummy, sticky substance.” Lyrical thus, “A dense flight of swallows formed shapes against the sky like a child molding a dough ball, never quite creating a convincing box turtle or dog’s head or teapot, but still moving from idea to idea with a beautiful fluidity.”

And at the conclusion of this joint memoir (by both Varina and James Blake), he writes in his notebook after a lengthy discussion with Varina: “Especially since I found the blue book, I’ve come to see Mr. Davis and his beliefs this way. He did as most politicians do – except more so – corrupt our language and symbols of freedom, pervert our war heroes. Because, like so many of them, he held no beloved idea or philosophy as tightly as his money purse. Take a king or a president or anybody. Put a heavy sack of gold in one hand and a feather-light about freedom in the other. And then an outlaw sticks a pistol in his face and says give me one or the other. Every time – ten out of ten – he’ll hug the sack and throw away the ideals, like the foundation under a building … And that’s how freedom and chains and a whipping post can live alongside each other comfortably.”

Do those words remind you of today?

Editor’s Note: ‘Varina’ by Charles Frazier is published by Ecco, New York 2018

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.
For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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