A Southern Girl

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

A SOUTHERN GIRL is one of the finest novels I’ve ever read about the south–-specifically Charleston, South Carolina’s 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 Guard’s flaws and shortcomings.

A SOUTHERN GIRL isn’t 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 book’s 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 Society’s annual dance, simply because of her Asian origins.

Coleman, a much-respected lawyer and longtime member of St. Simeon’s (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.

Coleman’s 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 wife’s death from cancer, is at first put off by Natalie’s 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 Coleman’s best friend Philip was killed in action. Just as Allie seeks to find her birth mother, Coleman hopes to exorcize Philip’s ghost, which has haunted him all these years (largely because he himself dodged the draft).

Warley’s 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)