The author of “Cold Mountain” became intrigued by the story of Varina, who struggled with being on the wrong side of history.
Novelist Charles Frazier knows the American South. He lives there (North Carolina), writes books about it (the National Book Award winner “Cold Mountain,” among others) and reads voraciously for his works of historical fiction. It was in the back alleys of historical research that he found the subject of his new novel, “Varina,” a woman 21st century America knows little or nothing about — Varina Davis, Jefferson Davis’ wife.
Jefferson Davis, was, of course, the president of the Confederacy, and he’s most in the news these days for statues in his image being taken down around the South. Davis believed that the U.S. Constitution gave him an absolute right to own other people, and he led the South’s secession from the United States and into a terrible civil war.
Varina Davis (1826-1906) was another matter. She believed the Civil War was a doomed enterprise for the South, and after the war she often said that the right side won. She moved to New York City and became fast friends with Julia Grant, the widow of Ulysses Grant, the general who brought the South to its knees. And before the war began, she took on the care of a young black man named Jimmie Limber, who becomes a key character in Frazier’s book when the grown-up Jimmie, now James, tracks down Varina to fill in the blank spaces of his past.
The author of “Cold Mountain” and “Varina” will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 10, in conversation with Mary Ann Gwinn at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
Frazier comes to Seattle on April 10 to talk about “Varina,” his fourth novel, at the Elliott Bay Book Co. He answered questions over the phone about his new book. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:
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Q: How did you come across Varina?
A: I can’t remember what I was reading that got me interested in her. I was not the least interested in her husband, and I didn’t know anything at all about her. One of the first things I discovered about her was that right after he (Jefferson Davis) died, she moved, at age 61 to New York City to become a writer, an accomplishment for anyone at that age, especially a woman of that time. Another early thing was her friendship with Julia Grant. They genuinely liked each other, but they also wanted their friendship to be public knowledge, as a sign of reconciliation.
Q: Is Jim/James based on a real person? Or is he a device to bring the discussion of slavery and race onto the stage?
A: That little boy really existed, and there are photographs of him — you can get to him by Googling Jimmie Limber (real name: James Henry Brooks). They (the Davises) were having pictures of some of their children made, and he’s there having his picture taken as well.
There were rumors that he was her child, based on her skin color (Varina Davis was described as having an olive complexion), that this little boy was really hers and Jefferson Davis’ son, that his color was caused by a recessive gene but that he was really their kid.
Q: Was that true?
A: Hard to know. The most likely thing was that his real mother died and that he was mistreated by the woman taking care of him. He was part of a street gang Varina’s kids were in. One way or another, he ended up in the Confederate White House with her children, and left right before the fall of Richmond, and then was separated from them after they were captured.
What happened to him after the capture, there’s nothing in the records. I wanted to imagine he would have been 6 when he drops out of history. I wanted to imagine the kind of life he might have had.
Q: I could never figure out how the Varina of the novel really felt about slavery. She grew up on Mississippi plantations, where slaves did all the hard work in the fields and in the home. At one point James asks, “Did you ever own me?” The reader never hears the answer.
A: One of the things that interested me about her was that in her 60s and 70s, during an age when people were digging into the values of their pasts and wanting to defend them, she would say something pretty progressive. She said the right side won. She sat in a New York hotel lobby talking to Booker T. Washington and made the newspapers for having a conversation with him. There were things she did to clearly be an example.
But then, she said, just as she said in the novel, “Gosh, I wish we could all take care of each other like we used to.” James was pretty incredulous about that.
Her attitudes were evolving, and that’s part of what interested me. That’s part of why I wanted the present time of the book to be 1906. It’s the greatest heroes that are able to fully rise above the values of their culture. She was not the greatest hero — she was struggling with being on the wrong side of history.
Q: You’ve written extensively about the terrible period after the Civil War, in both “Cold Mountain” and now “Varina.” What is the least understood aspect of Reconstruction?
A: I think how long it went on. And its failures to educate the newly freed slaves. There were good ideas in place right after the war, and those just faded away within a few years. If some of those early plans had been carried through, things might have gone better.
Q: Since you published “Cold Mountain” in 1997, there has been renewed attention to the Civil War, including the removal of Confederate monuments around the country and a lot of new scholarship about slavery. How has your approach to writing about the Civil War changed since you wrote that book?
A: It certainly kept the issues surrounding the war in mind during the four years I was working on this. There are such clear examples of how the issues of that war and the aftermath of that war are still haunting this country. A lot of people have called slavery the original sin of the country. We never resolved the cause of the war, and all the monuments and the flags just indicate how much the issues of the Civil War are like the armature inside a sculpture. It’s like it’s baked into the framework of the country. It’s so hard to shake.