Contemplating Mrs. Jefferson Davis
Mrs. Jefferson Davis, wife of the infamous president of the Confederate States of America, made her interesting enough that Frazier would write a novel about her?
I scooped the book off the shelves. What followed were many late evenings leapfrogging time and space to follow Varina Howell of Natchez, Mississippi, through her life as it careened (in no particular order) from Washington, DC, to Richmond, Virginia, to New York City, to the wilds of Florida as she and her children tried to flee to Cuba, to Germany, and to Paris, with various other stops along the way. Always at her side was her reticule, which held the morphine she’d been using since age thirteen, and the “suicide pistol” her husband had given her for use if the Union soldiers tried to assault her.
The organizing conceit of the novel was fascinating: the reappearance forty years after the war was lost of a Negro boy she’d rescued from a beating, then raised alongside her children and from whom she’d been parted at their capture by Union forces in those aforementioned Florida swamps.
It’s now the twentieth century. Varina is near the end of her life and she’s buried five of her six children—one in seemingly every decade of her life. The return of the boy she called “Jimmie” (now a well-respected teacher named James Blake) gives her a chance to remember the tragedies and triumphs of the belle, mother, first lady, fugitive, and grande dame she’d been. He asks her to tell the story of his life as she knew it, his questions building to the obvious one: had she owned him?
Especially evocative are the passages written about the people and communities of the Confederacy in the days after it fell. The choices they were forced to make are not unlike those etched into our brains: the chaos in Afghanistan and the desperate images of the fall of Saigon.
Varina is a powerful book that brought alive for me the struggle for survival after senseless carnage. It confronts big questions about a complicated time in our history through the patient but unrelenting inquiries of the polite James Blake and the rejoinders—at turns, unflinchingly honest and offered through the gauze of morphine—of the woman who saved his life, loved him as a mother, saved him a second time, and then passed him along to a future that she believed would be kinder than she could offer from a prison cell…or worse.
Varina Howell Davis was a complex person in fact and is an intricate character of fiction. It’s worth your time to meet her. If you’d like a second opinion, look up a 2018 book review by Brenda Wineapple of the New York Times, “The First Lady of the Confederacy Considers Her Painful Past.” She calls Varina “a marvelously fallible character, complicated enough to stand on her compromised own.”
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