(2018) is a novel by American author Charles Frazier. Its title character, Varina “V” Davis, is a real historical figure, the widow of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Frazier has V narrate her life story to James Blake, a black schoolteacher who grew up in the Davises’household but was separated from V during the fall of Richmond at the end of the Civil War.
The novel opens in 1906, in upstate New York, where 80-year-old V Davis is staying in a plush retreat-cum-hospital. She is trying to detox from a lifetime’s addiction to opium, routinely prescribed to Southern ladies.
There she receives a visitor, a black schoolteacher named James Blake. Having read Jefferson Davis’s memoir, Blake has tracked down V to find out the truth about his own history. He grew up in the Davises’ home, not as a slave but as a child of the household, but he does not remember how he came to be there. He has not seen V since the fall of Richmond at the end of the Civil War.
V is eager to talk, although reluctant to air her own complicity and guilt. She refers to the South’s legacy as a burden of sin, “one of those generational Bible curses.” She feels guilty for her own husband’s role in the War, exacerbated by “Jeff’s” refusal ever to admit that he had been wrong, or to apologize for the bloodshed and suffering that occurred on his orders.
While V’s narrative focuses on her adoption of James and her flight from Richmond with James and her other children, she recounts her whole life story in order to explore the roots of the Confederacy and of her own guilt. She begins with her childhood in Natchez, Mississippi, and her family connections in the South and the North.
As a young woman, V is married to Jeff, who is more than twice her age and a widower, still mourning his beloved first wife, who died of the malaria that continues to afflict Jeff. Both his family and hers caution against the marriage. Jeff’s family condescend to V, regarding her as troublingly dark-complexioned and too opinionated for a woman. Meanwhile, V’s family is concerned about Jeff’s politics. The country is deeply divided, and Jeff, who is about to stand for election to Congress, has divisive views.
Husband and wife relocate to Washington, D.C., where Jeff is sworn in as a Congressman. The marriage is combative, but there is affection between husband and wife, and V is soon pregnant with the first of six children. As Jeff makes a name for himself as a politician, V becomes well-known and influential as a Washington hostess. Indeed, the novel suggests that V is far more astute and prescient than her husband.
Jeff owns slaves, and although V is ambivalent about slavery, she publicly endorses Jeff’s position. In recounting the early days of her marriage, she remembers her slaves as forming a contented part of the household: “We all just took care of each other.”
James takes issue with her paternalistic remembrances, explaining to V that her slaves suffered. “You only remember what they allowed you to remember.”
V’s prediction comes to pass. The Confederate states break away and Jeff is elected as the Confederacy’s first president. The household relocates to Richmond, now the Confederate capital. V has a front-row seat for Jeff’s disastrous handling of both the civil and the military side of the War. She is powerless to intervene.
One day, on the streets of Richmond, V encounters a light-skinned black boy being beaten by a black woman. Appalled, V puts a stop to the beating and takes the boy home. Asked for his name, the boy replies, “Jimmie Limber.” V dresses him in some old clothes of her son’s. Jimmie proves himself intelligent and eager to please, and V feels that he is “a son to me.”
Jimmie Limber is the schoolteacher James Blake. What James most wants to know is whether he was a slave, prior to his adoption by the Davises. V evades the question, but James explains that it is important. V confesses that she doesn’t know, but she believes he was the orphan child of a free black woman.
Jimmie is part of the household by the time the War grinds to its conclusion. As Union troops close in on Richmond, V readies her children, Jimmie, and some servants to escape.
The party flees on a pair of ambulance wagons, Richmond burning in their wake. They set out for Florida, hoping to sail for the safety of Cuba. Their journey takes them through Carolina and Georgia, where Sherman’s army has scorched the earth. Die-hard Secessionists fight a bitter guerrilla campaign, and packs of hungry feral dogs hunt down children. With courage and guile, V leads her party through all these dangers, almost making it to Florida. However, when Jeff arrives to take over the party, they are captured almost immediately. Their captors separate them and take Jimmie away.
Jeff is jailed, and V loyally takes up the cause of pleading for his miserable conditions to be improved. After his release, Jeff is unrepentant. He launches into the writing of his memoirs, a justification of his leadership.
Before he can finish his memoirs, he dies. Wondering what she should do now, V realizes that Jeff won’t be waiting for her in the afterlife. He will already be searching for his beloved first wife.
V wants to escape the South, and for a while, she lives cheaply and anonymously in London. Eventually, she returns to the US, making her home in New York City, where she supports herself by working as a journalist. Despite her distaste for her late husband’s ideas, she takes on the task of finishing his memoirs. The work feels to her like “solitary confinement inside his head.”
Having finished her story, V wants to know James’s. He explains that he was lucky to receive a good education at a philanthropic institute. He is a widower, and his wife’s family wants him to come into the family business. However, he loves teaching, and he intends to remain a teacher.