mississippi-80478_640

OK, not exactly with Jesmyn (Ward, that is, the author of two National Book Award-winning novels and one of TIME‘s most influential people of the year).

Let’s back up. Varina is the latest painstakingly-researched period novel by Charles Frazier (of Cold Mountain fame); his protagonist, Varina, has the dubious–and real–historical distinction of having served as the first lady of the American Confederacy. But before she married Jefferson Davis, (who became president of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865), she was Varina Howell of Mississippi.

I was halfway through Varina, when I came upon Ward’s essay in TIME, “My True South: Why I Decided to Return Home” [to live and raise her children in her native Mississippi], introduced and excerpted at Longreads by Aaron Gilbreath.

I knew Ward and Varina would make good reading companions. And so, across vast differences–most notably, race and more than a century-and-a-half of time–two women from Mississippi meet, with me, and discuss the fractured meaning of home.

Picture the state of Mississippi, and you might conjure a grand river boat from gentile times gone by, paddle churning behind; you might as readily imagine a vast field of cotton being picked by slaves; or, you might picture the scene of a lynching. For Ward,

Mississippi is the memory America invokes whenever it wants to convince itself that racial violence and subjugation are mostly lodged in the past, that they have no space in our present moment, save in this backwoods, backward place.

Of course, we know that native places, like their people, have long memories and a long reach.

So, I’m straying from the American Rust Belt (again) to examine how Varina and Ward characterize another distinctly American place, the South they hail from: the land and legacies they (and all Americans, really) are tied to, for better and worse.

Though the American South is not in my bones, I am not wholly unqualified to join these women in this character-study of the place. I’ve never been to Mississippi, but I spent more than a decade living in Richmond, Virginia, which served as the Capital of the Confederacy. As a nineteen-year-old from Ohio, with a grasp of Civil War history that mostly came from watching Patrick Swayze in the 80s miniseries North and South, I would gain an education–inside and out of my college classrooms.

One hundred and thirty years after Richmond burned, I, like many students, lived on Monument Avenue (a residential boulevard bearing large-scale monuments of Confederate heroes, Jefferson Davis, included)–first on J.E.B. Stuart’s circle and later just off Robert E. Lee’s.* When, after a terrible summer storm, much of the city, including my sweltering apartment, was without power for more than a week, Robert E. Lee was first on the block to be back on the grid–lit up in the night like Christmas. The irony of that “enlightenment” wasn’t lost on me.

Still, Richmond was where I fell in love with American literature and found the slim canon I knew from high school stretched to include the autobiographies of slaves; up through the writers of the Harlem Renaissance; to Toni Morrison; and to my teacher, novelist Marita Golden.

Then, along that historic grassy boulevard where I lived, modern-day tennis star and humanitarian, African-American and Richmond native Arthur Ashe was memorialized with the first non-Confederate statue. And I watched the pickup trucks of skinheads descend upon Monument Avenue and circle the statue in protest, Confederate flags flying, as if their capital city had never fallen.

The novel Varina basically begins on the “Friday night before Richmond burned,” when Varina flees the “false White House and the capital city,” with a companion, Ellen, a former slave; and their children. The plan: to escape capture by the Union army by fleeing south on wagons–and living off the land, a few friends, and more strangers–first to “Floridaland,” and finally to Havana. (Here is where Frazier’s depictions of the raw Southern landscape shine.) But, escape doesn’t come easily for those so firmly in the wrong, as Varina laments.

Her recalling of her childhood in Mississippi reveals some of the most interesting facets of the novel–a novel which, though geographically and historically illuminating, doesn’t grip this reader as Frazier’s Cold Mountain and, especially, his Nightwoods did. The author writes of Varina’s (incomplete) childhood epiphany, the girl and then woman forever walking a tightrope stretched between complicity and geographical removal designed to save face:

She grew up where and when she did. [Slavery] was a given. But she began feeling the strangeness of it at about nine or ten…The sense that a strong line cut through all the people she knew…free on her side, enslaved on the other…the line between slave and free might have been only a foot across–but even then it cut deep, a bottomless chasm. Yet the only determinant of which side you occupied was a paper-thin layer a skin, a fraction of blood degree.

Would that we could say things have changed enough in 150 years, but Ward chronicles in her essay the racial aggressions–sometimes “slight and interpersonal,” sometime “deeper, systemic” that forever loom. Says Ward,

Living in the American South for generations, my family has collected so many accounts of racial terror, passed down over the decades.

And yet… when she might flee never to return, Ward goes back to her childhood home to live, because it is just that, home, for her and her children. Her depictions of the Mississippi landscape are both stifling and stunning:

…tall pines and verdant vines and lush shrubs, it was as if the very water in the air buoyed me up so I could float through the heat.

But it’s even more than her place. It’s all of this collected America in pieces. Gilbreath calls Ward’s essay, a “portrait of an entire nation,” and I would say the same for the story of Varina Howell Davis–my two reading companions, Ward and Varina, standing on opposite sides of a chasm we can only work to close through generations of building and rebuilding our best approximations of home.

Ward says,

I like to think that after I die, my children will look at that place and see a place of refuge, of rest. I hope they do not flee… Even as the South remains troubled by its past, there are people here who are fighting so it can find its way to a healthier future, never forgetting the lessons of its long, brutal history, ever present, ever instructive.

What are you reading right now? How does it inform your notion of home?

Ward’s story is part of TIME’s August 6 special issue on the American South. More from the issue here.

*Richmond’s historic avenue of Civil War monuments has not escaped controversy, which has raged from its inception in the early 20th century until now. Stay tuned.

*Image of a Mississippi wood courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

11 thoughts on “Reading VARINA with Jesmyn

  1. Your words have intrigued me to add to my ‘bucket’ reading list! I’m currently reading The Devil in the White City – it doesn’t remind me of home, but my youngest made Chicago her home for 4 years while in college. The history of that town is very interesting to me, so I find the book worthy of reading.

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    1. Historical First Ladies seem to be having something of a heyday in fiction at the moment, and I’m certainly learning a lot about Varina Davis (since I knew nothing of her before) from Frazier; though for a thrilling story, I have to go with his _Nightwoods_.

      I haven’t read that book of Larson’s but I loved his _In the Garden of Beasts_! He does an amazing job of researching and writing his–true–subjects. I was lucky enough to hear him speak a couple years ago and seems like a cool guy.

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  2. I have recently reflected on the question of where home really is when one is a traveler. I believe that home is not much more than a collection of our memories and shared experiences. Places change, people move but a good memory only gets better over time. Home is where you are building your future memories.

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    1. Amen to that, Lorna. I find “home” in voices–both on the page and in real life. Funny, I was listening to a dumb morning show on the radio recently, and I thought “that d.j. sounds like home,” only to find out she’s from Buffalo, near where my mom grew up. The nasally accent might not sound pretty to many, but it takes me back!

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  3. I like the juxtaposition you’ve used here. I suppose having grown up as an Army brat that I could make anyplace feel like home, eventually. I’m rather partial to the town I’ve lived in for 33 years now! Familiar faces and a navigable grocery store are important factors to a sense of home. 😉

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    1. 33 years is quite a change from moving around every few years as an Army brat. I see that a lot where we live–near D.C.–and I’m always amazed at the families who waste absolutely no time making friends, fitting in and making this place home, all the while knowing they’ll be somewhere else in three years. Tough. But I imagine those who can do it, really do feel at home everywhere they go. But, yes, good neighbors and grocery store certainly help!

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