Anyone who has read Charles Frazier’s novel “Cold Mountain” will recognize the application of its template to “Varina,” his tale of flight from a hazardous situation and a long trek in hope of survival that does not end well.
Based on the life of Varina Howell Davis, the wife of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis, this historical novel brings to the fore a willful, flawed, yet admirable woman who struggles for her rights in a society that demanded compliance to specific rules of behavior.
Varina Howell of Natchez, Miss., was the teenage bride of a widower twice her age, who was destined to be president of a new nation created by states that seceded from the Union. Along the way, she had to deal with a dominating much-older brother-in-law who lived by strict rules and expected everyone else to recognize his authority.
This fictionalized version of real-life situations sets the tone for a tour de force involving escape of Confederate government officials from the fallen capital of Richmond, beginning in April 1865. Varina travels apart from her husband, the president, with a small party, toward Florida, with the ultimate goal of freedom from pursuing Yankees in Havana, Cuba.
During this harrowing venture southward, Frazier employs flashbacks to narrate the history of Varina’s and Jefferson’s life as man and wife — though often separated as Jeff chose to go off alone to serve in military and governmental capacities.
Varina’s is a life of youthful distress, a trouble-filled marriage, struggle to retain independence and dignity in the face of male domination, and a peripatetic round of political adventures while her May/September marriage grinds on, causing sparks to fly from the friction of mutually independent-minded spouses.
Although Frazier’s narrative is less likely to blaze across the popular spectrum like “Cold Mountain,” those who enjoyed his travelogue of descriptive landscapes and a catch-all cast of characters met along the way will undoubtedly enjoy this latest excursion as well.
The author’s desire to make Varina Howell Davis come alive for an audience who will have little idea who she was or what she stood for is commendable. Through his efforts and because of his reputation as an author, “V” will no longer live in the dark shadows; but, will be known throughout the world for the grace and dynamism that filled her years on this planet.
Frazier delights in inserting characters along V’s trek through the country and forests of the states south of Virginia. Occasionally, the narrative evolves into an apologia for Southerners who, although not part of the hardcore slave-owning society, nonetheless validated the War Between the States.
The author gets his licks in against the dastardly Yankees who foraged for food and confiscated property of private citizens, especially along the routes traversed through Georgia and the Carolinas by Gen. William T. Sherman’s marauding divisions. While Frazier portrays Sherman as a heartless purveyor of cruelty against innocent citizens, farmers or Southerners in general, he also establishes the general’s position against the institution of slavery’s brutality and degradation.
Frazier infers condemnation of a slave-owning society by placing the lives of Jefferson and Varina Davis in perspective: both culpable for continuing along their path of acceptance despite warning signs and personal qualms. Jeff reconciles his stance through self-righteousness, while the more liberal-minded “V” lives in a morphine-induced cloud to survive in this objectionable environment.
Toward the end, when the focus of Frazier’s story shifts to Jefferson Davis and his ill fortune after the collapse of the Confederacy, it morphs into an absence of hope and redemption. The warmth projected in the story of Cold Mountain’s Inman may have been replicated by Varina, except for the burden of her husband — the patronizing president of the fallen Confederacy.
What’s left is a sense that the author discovered that “V” had an exhilarating story that matched her exuberant personality. Read “Varina” to learn about a young girl who had to grow up all too quickly, and triumphed in the end through sheer tenacity and an innate love of life — although tested by the obstacles the Good Lord chose to place in her path.
Next, we will revisit Gettysburg to learn about Thomas M. Eishen’s version of “Courage on Little Round Top” involving soldiers from the states of Maine and Alabama.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point