By SCOTT GRABER
John Warley was born in Florence, just as World War II was coming to an end. His father, a naval officer, remained in the Navy after the war and John’s youth was that of a restless, peripatetic military brat.
That wandering brat-hood ended when he enrolled at The Citadel in 1963.
After graduating from The Citadel in 1967 John went to the University of Virginia School of Law. When he graduated in 1970 he began to practice law and remained a lawyer for almost 40 years. Then, abruptly, he stopped and decided to be a writer.
One might assume that writing comes naturally to lawyers. They do write briefs and pleadings. But for those lawyers who choose to write fiction, or novels, lawyering is not the best foundation.
Novels require imagination, creativity and the ability to let one’s characters take them into unknown, uncharted waters. The writing of legal briefs is never a meandering journey into terra incognito.
One might think that putting together a good legal argument is much like writing fiction. But legal arguments are grounded in precedent — case law that was decided by long-dead judges who dictate the outcome of almost every conflict, civil or criminal, from the grave.
John had to learn to write fiction — to practice. And during that years-long practice, John probably wiped out at least 100 acres of Jasper County pine trees.
But John had a good teacher — Pat Conroy.
John and Pat had been classmates at The Citadel. Both were athletes and both lived in the 4th Battalion — home of young men The Citadel was interested in keeping in hopes that sometime in the future they would win a Southern Conference Championship. Both were on the baseball team.
After graduation John became a sought-after trial lawyer; and Pat became a famous writer. Notwithstanding their differing paths, they remained friends and, from time to time, Pat would seek refuge from his celebrity with John and John’s family. Sometimes, not always, Pat would read what John was writing.
“Don’t under any circumstances quit your day job,” was usually the advice that Pat would leave with John as he backed out of John’s driveway in Newport News, Va.
Notwithstanding Pat’s advice, John continued to write and eventually published Bethesda’s Child. This novel was followed by A Southern Girl, which was followed by The Moralist — Volumes 1 and 2. Now he has written The Home Guard.
Home Guard is set in Beaufort County in 1862 just when Abraham Lincoln decided to invade the South, choosing Beaufort and Port Royal Sound as targets. Specifically it concerns a boy, 12-years old, who is left behind and becomes a spy for the Confederacy.
Home Guard will be of interest to local folks because it brings to life the old homes and tide-washed topography that is familiar to all of us. However, John gives us a Civil War period piece just when many critics are blasting all things Confederate — especially the monuments that memorialize its soldiers.
John is familiar with this controversial landscape having previously written Standing Forever, Yielding Never — the modern history of The Citadel. And in his history he deals with The Citadel’s loose connection with Denmark Vesey’s attempted slave rebellion in 1822 — a scare that caused South Carolina to establish armories in Columbia and Charleston.
Eventually the Charleston armory came to be guarded by a local militia that morphed into the Corps of Cadets.
John creates his Home Guard characters with attention to detail — clothing, food and dates. But it’s dialogue that makes you like, or dislike, his characters.
With respect to dialogue, John gives the reader his version of the Gullah/Geechee language used by the newly freed slaves. This effort is a potential landmine that some academics have criticized.
In fact Kirkus Review writes: “Black characters speak in painfully rendered dialect — Me peoples yere. Uh spect uh gwine stay. Barnwells bin good to ole Rosa. I tank ya fo dat. Dem forts fall. We gwain stay right ‘chere’”
When John began writing Home Guard he must have known that recreating the Gullah dialogue could open him up to criticism.
But I suspect he remembered his mentor — Pat Conroy — who told many of his stories knowing some readers might be offended.
But Pat also told John, and other writers, to tell their stories as honestly as they could. It was, he would say, “your story to tell.”
Writing takes candor and courage. One should never write timidly, tentatively or with one eye looking at the rear-view mirror.