The novel unites a 1970’s American family with an orphaned infant from Seoul, Korea after Coleman’s liberal-thinking and compassionate wife Elizabeth convinces her husband to adopt Soo Yun (later Allie) in spite of Coleman’s reservations that stem largely from his deeply-steeped Southern elitist values.
With settings shifting seamlessly among the diverse cultures of Vietnam, Korea, Virginia, and Charleston, SC and the varying points of view ranging from Soo Yun’s birthmother, her orphanage nurse, Elizabeth, and Coleman, A Southern Girl, both in form and subject, embraces the powerful themes of acceptance and inclusion. The reader becomes absorbed in Allie’s development as a Korean child growing up in Charleston, SC, but even more absorbing is the protagonist Coleman’s growth. A devoted parent, he evolves from being a man of narrow scope to one who not only embraces diversity but puts his own professional and social reputation at stake to fight against his daughter’s exclusion from the privileged society to which he himself belongs.
The book’s subject is extremely timely in light of the current crisis with the reduction of international adoptions. John and his deceased wife Barbara adopted a South Korean daughter 35 years ago, and he is alarmed by the current situation of children languishing in foster care or institutions and the nearly 60% reduction in Americans adopting internationally. “Had the sheer inefficiency of today’s broken system been in place in 1978, it is safe to say my very American daughter would be speaking Korean,” John says. While the Warleys’ cost for adoption was less than $2000, and they received their daughter as an infant, current costs are $25,000-$30,000 and adoption takes years with many unplanned delays. “By then, a child has been institutionalized for 7 or 8 years, and the parents have to be prepared for all kinds of challenges an infant would not have,” according to John.
Allie’s immersion into American life in A Southern Girl, while filled with trials, proves cultural obstacles can be overcome and differences can open our eyes more clearly to our human commonalities. “While no one denies a perfect solution would be for orphans to stay in their native country, the truth is the shortage of loving, nurturing families to adopt in native countries puts these children at a far greater risk that growing up in a different culture,” John says.