Fictionalizing the Confederacy is a tricky business. “Gone With the Wind” set a template for Civil War-era romanticism — palmetto trees, soft air, lacy gentility. But that template also softens what’s indefensible about that time and place, particularly slavery’s abuses and rationalizations.

Charles Frazier became a bestselling and award-winning author in part because he has a knack for squaring that circle: He writes charming, sweet-tea fiction about the region that’s alert to its indignities. His blockbuster 1997 debut, “Cold Mountain,” framed that tension around a regretful Southern soldier and the love he left behind. Frazier’s fourth novel, the gentle but affecting “Varina,” follows a similar path, though without the romance.

Its title character is the widow of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who together had a loveless marriage in service of bad ideology. Her experience opens up the novel’s main question: How do you escape an intellectual error you’ve literally been wedded to?

To answer it, Frazier dedicates most of the narrative to the end of Varina Davis’ life. In 1906, the year she died, she was living in New York, surviving on newspaper writing, sales of her late husband’s memoirs, and others’ generosity. Jimmie, a black man she saved from a beating as a child, has arrived, looking for clarity about her role in his life. But she’s survived by trying to escape history and often pleads ignorance. “You can mire yourself in the past, but you can’t change a damn thing in that lost world,” she thinks.

Still, she can’t help thinking back, and Frazier depicts her as a mannered but independent-minded woman, comfortable amid government pageantry but quick to question justifications for the slave economy. (She routinely locks horns with Davis’ family on the matter.) Mostly she recalls her desperate attempt to escape the country after the Civil War. Jimmie was with her, and grateful for her help, but stuck on a lingering question: “Did you ever own me?”

In reality, Varina Davis was no abolitionist hero: Conflicted as she might have been about slavery, she never spoke out against it and married its culture’s standard-bearer. So Frazier tries, sometimes a little laboriously, to make her a hero of another kind: the woman who persisted and eventually escaped the restrictions of the Confederacy (“a veneer of refinement over a deep core of brutality”), of Southern culture, of expectations of women and their intellect.

“Stories of exploration, freedom, slavery, and always violence,” Frazier writes. “We keep clutching those things, or at least worn-out images of them, like idols we can’t quit worshiping.” The heroism in Varina is her recognition of the hollowness of those idols. Its tragedy is that her circumstances never empowered her to do much beyond making that recognition.

 

Mark Athitakis is a Phoenix-based book critic.

Varina
By: Charles Frazier.
Publisher: Ecco, 353 pages, $27.99.