Charles Frazier’s fiction returns to the Civil War

NEVER FAR BEHIND US: In 'Varina,' author Charles Frazier offers a retrospective tale of a past riddled with anguish and regret.
NEVER FAR BEHIND US: In 'Varina,' author Charles Frazier offers a retrospective tale of a past riddled with anguish and regret. Photo by Mark Humphrey

In his latest novel, Varina, acclaimed writer Charles Frazier returns to a familiar era: the Civil War. “I really thought after Cold Mountain … I was not going to go back to that time period,” he says. But plans changed when he discovered the lesser-known story of his book’s titular character, Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

On Saturday, April 21, Frazier will read passages from his new work at UNC Asheville’s Lipinsky Auditorium. The author will later be joined onstage in conversation by fellow novelist and UNCA writer-in-residence Wiley Cash.

For Cash, the chance to participate in the event is an honor. He considers Frazier — who was born in Asheville, raised in Andrews, and still lives part time in the area — as one of his literary heroes. “I’ve gotten to know Charles pretty well over the past few years, but I’ve never been able to look past the huge influence he’s had on me as a reader and writer,” Cash says. Frazier’s new work, Cash continues, “shows how complicated this history of our region is … and how so many people and groups of people view such a defining moment in our country’s history in so many different ways.”

In Varina, Frazier offers a retrospective tale characterized by anguish and regret. While the book spans multiple decades, readers are primarily grounded in two specific times: 1865 and 1906. In the more recent year, the novel’s eponymous character (whom Frazier refers to as “V” throughout the story) is a widow living in New York City, far from the South and ruin of her past. Nevertheless, much of her time is spent remembering that bygone era and her desperate attempt to flee the country after the fall of the Confederacy.

“I liked the idea of an older person struggling, day by day, to understand their complicity with a hugely damaging part of our history and trying to move forward,” says Frazier.

Throughout the novel, guilt and dread plague Varina. As a fugitive in 1865, she and her cohort of runaways are constantly confronted by the atrocities of the war. In one scene, a young girl sits at the far bank of a river, shouting directions to the outlaws as they cross the waterway. Once they reach the other side, Varina attempts to pay the child for her assistance. But the girl has no need for money; there isn’t anything left to buy. Instead, the child asks for water, despite the tributary that flows before them. “That river’s nasty,” the girl explains. “It’s got dead people in it, just laying there spoiling.”

Other moments in the book sound eerily familiar to the present day. “If you haven’t noticed … we’re a furious nation, and war drums beat in our chest,” Varina states at one point. In another passage, Jefferson Davis is noted for his corruption of both the language and symbols of freedom. Near the novel’s end, Varina contemplates the origin and consequences of the Confederacy. Enraged, she acknowledges the culpability of a people who would “vote out God in favor of the devil if he fed them back their hate and fear in a way that made them feel righteous.”

Frazier hopes his latest work shows readers the ramifications that arise when history is whitewashed. “A lot of people get to the point where they just want to defend their past and the past of their culture,” he says. “I think we see a great deal of that in general, right now.”

The result of such behavior is a country forever haunted by its former days. In the four years it took Frazier to write Varina, acts of violence driven by racist ideology continued to unfold. The author points to the deadly church shooting in Charleston, S.C., that left nine African-American parishioners dead and the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Va., after a rally protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, as examples. “It was hard not to think about the current manifestations of the Civil War in writing this book,” he says.

With the complex and rich character of VarinaFrazier makes it clear: You cannot ignore or outrun the past. In the book, he writes: “Being on the wrong side of history carries consequences. V lives that truth every day. If you’ve done terrible things, lived a terrible way, profited from pain in the face of history’s power to judge, then guilt and loss accrue.” This note is hit again and again throughout the story’s pages.

Frazier shows moments of hope, as well. The possibility for redemption, no matter how slim, is there. “About 99 percent of the time, we’re more awful than any animal you can name,” Varina states early in the novel. “But, in that final decimal, we’re so beautiful.”

WHAT: Charles Frazier presents Varina, in conversation with Wiley Cash
WHERE: Lipinsky Hall at UNC Asheville, 1 University Heights, avl.mx/4ty
WHEN: Saturday, April 21, 7-9 p.m. Free

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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