REVIEW by Willard Manus
A SOUTHERN GIRL is one of the finest novels Ive ever read about the
south-specifically Charleston, South Carolinas insular upper-class
society. The author, John Warley, is a product of that elite group and thus
can write about it from the inside, with a wealth of detail and understanding.
At the same time, he can be quite objective and even critical of the Old
Guards flaws and shortcomings.
GIRL isnt merely a comedy of manners. It also deals with family,
race, civil liberties, war, love and death-subjects that are dramatized
skillfully and vividly by the author.
The key character is Allison (Allie) a Korean foundling adopted by Elizabeth
and Coleman Carter in the 1950s (most of the books first fifteen
chapters are set in Korea). Allie grows up in Charleston and becomes a
bright, vivacious teenager, American through and through, she believes-that
is, until her 18th birthday, at which time she is denied permission to
attend the St. Simeon Societys annual dance, simply because of her
Coleman, a much-respected lawyer and longtime member of St. Simeons
(his father was a past-president of the club), is outraged by this development
and decides to do battle with the Board members who secretly voted to
exclude her. The dance is a badge of belonging which he believes his daughter
is entitled to wear.
Colemans battle becomes increasingly more intense, complex and fraught
with drama as the weeks go by. Not just racism is involved here, but tests
of loyalty, friendship and courage. Joining forces with Coleman is Natalie
Berman, a scrappy ACLU lawyer down from NYC who specializes in discrimination
cases. Coleman, recently widowed by his wifes death from cancer,
is at first put off by Natalies aggressive, ultra-liberal stance,
but eventually he comes to admire, respect and even love this gutsy Yankee.
In the last
section of A SOUTHERN GIRL, the story returns to Asia-not just Korea
but Viet Nam, where Colemans best friend Philip was killed in action.
Just as Allie seeks to find her birth mother, Coleman hopes to exorcize
Philips ghost, which has haunted him all these years (largely because
he himself dodged the draft).
Warleys novel keeps going deeper and deeper into character and American
history, increasing in relevance and power the whole time.
(University of South Carolina Press, www.uscpress.com)