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In 'Varina,' A Confederate Contemplates Her Complicity

Charles Frazier used to think he'd said enough about the Civil War. In Cold Mountain, he'd written an acclaimed novel that became an Oscar-winning movie.

"After Cold Mountain, I never thought I wanted to write about the Civil War again," he says in an interview. "But as the past three or four years have shown, it's not done with us — as a country, as a culture."

We still have competing visions of America. And Charles Frazier's new novel Varina offers a fictional version of a real-life Confederate.

Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy, and Varina Davis was his wife — the Confederate first lady. It's Varina who caught Frazier's attention. His novel depicts Mrs. Davis long after the war, when she's a widow and moves, as Varina did in real life, to the North. She tries to remake herself as a writer, though the past keeps returning to haunt her.

Interview Highlights

On what drew Frazier to write about Varina

I was very interested in this figure who was peripheral to all of those enormous, destructive, horrible elements of American history who continued evolving in her thinking. She was never perfect, and to my mind, it's only really the greatest heroes who are able to rise totally above the values of their culture, and she certainly wasn't that. But I really liked the idea of a character struggling to move forward, to stay engaged with the world. And she, at some point, said: I'm not going back to Richmond, to the South, until it's feet-first in a box. ...

And the thing that kept pulling me in is her continuing to examine the lead-up to the war, her complicity, that sense of the consequences of being on the wrong side of history, those kinds of things.

On the real-life inspiration behind the fictional James Blake, a mixed-race character who Varina first knew as a boy

There's a photograph of him that would have been made in a photographer's studio in Richmond, and some of her children were photographed at the same time with some of the same props. And this little boy left Richmond right before the fall [of Richmond], and traveled with her until they were captured in South Georgia. ...

There's a little bit of record of him for about a year after that, and then he disappears from history. He would have been about 6 at the time. And I wondered what a reunion of Varina and that little boy, now a middle-aged man, would be like — and what questions he might [have] asked her about his past and her past.

On Varina's views on slavery

She, in later age, said very clearly: The right side won the war. She also would sometimes make retrograde statements, like: Gosh, I wish we could all go back to the time when we took care of each other. And James Blake [the character] very quickly challenges her on that.

On if Varina's fictional description of how the war changed the South for 'generations to come' match the author's own

It is certainly the way I see it sometimes. Dealing with the commemoration of those kinds of things — we certainly need to remember, and we need to remember the causes, and we need to remember that part of the reason the Civil War keeps rearing its head is because we never resolved the issues that rose from the ownership of human beings: the issues of race, dealing with aftermath of slavery, all those things that we're still carrying with us.

Danny Hajek and Shannon Rhoades produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.