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Review: 'The Home Guard' a coming-of-age story steeped in history

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The Home Guard

"The Home Guard" by John Warley

THE HOME GUARD. By John Warley. Evening Post Books. 402 pages. $29.95.

On Nov. 7, 1861, seven months after the attack on Fort Sumter, Union warships entered Port Royal Sound with orders to secure the area and blockade the southern coastline. Within hours, Hilton Head Island’s Fort Walker and nearby Fort Beauregard lay in ruins, their Confederate flags replaced by the Stars and Stripes.

Upon hearing that the forts had fallen, panicked white residents of Beaufort began a mass exodus from the town, grabbing what belongings they could carry aboard waiting steamers. When the dust cleared, all that remained were their abandoned homes and businesses, and 10,000 African-American slaves.

And, as depicted in John Warley’s latest work, “The Home Guard,” two others: a 12-year-old boy named Carter and his grandmother.

“The Home Guard,” published by Evening Post Books, a sister-company of The Post and Courier, takes place in Beaufort and surrounding areas during the years 1861 to 1865. Drawing from the many perspectives of those who lived during that time — Rebel, Yankee, landowner, slave, missionary, soldier — Warley weaves a compelling coming-of-age story with factual events from “the Great Naval Expedition” of Beaufort and beyond, providing readers with an immensely readable and informative history lesson along the way.

Carter Barnwell, the youngest son of a well-respected Beaufort family, enjoys a carefree, entitled life before the war. However, his protected world ends abruptly with the arrival of Union forces. While his widowed mother prepares the family for escape, his grandmother has other ideas. Refusing to leave Beaufort, she commandeers her grandson to transport her to a small hunting cabin downriver, where she intends to wait out the war.

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Suddenly, Carter is thrust into the role of provider, protector and, at the urging of his newly enlisted cousin, home guard and spy for the Confederate army. For a young man who has suddenly lost everything dear to him, this is his chance to contribute to the cause and in his small way protect his loved ones who remain dangerously out of reach.

Yet, that is only the beginning of Carter’s challenges. The predictable pangs of adolescence combined with the arrival of a pretty young missionary from the North produce a heady mixture almost as disconcerting as the threat of Union capture. His budding friendship with Sonja, who struggles as he does with loneliness and hardship in her new surroundings, begins haltingly. However, their affection for each other grows as the two learn to look past the differences of their backgrounds and see each other as the fully realized adults they are becoming.

The Civil War has no shortage of stories, far more than one novel could possibly hope to cover. However, Warley manages ably by introducing readers to those in Carter’s outwardly radiating circles. Mother Anna, who escapes the Beaufort occupation, only to witness the destruction of Charleston and Columbia. Brother Preston, a Confederate soldier who agonizes over taking another man’s life. Former slaves Grace and Polk, who must navigate a new world in which they shift from slave to contraband to freed. Carter’s grandmother, who must not only acknowledge the mistakes and missteps of her beloved South but her own fading place in the world. And Sonja, whose abstract understanding of slavery is soon replaced by a close-up view of the ravages of the institution and the complicated road ahead for the former enslaved.

On its surface, “The Home Guard” is a story of the Civil War as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. Carter’s journey to manhood, filled with adversity, growing independence and the confusing stirrings of sexuality are certainly relatable. However, peel back the layers, and readers will find much more. When faced with the choice to continue spying for the Confederates, Carter must begin to think like the man he is becoming, one whose growing maturity requires difficult choices made on his own terms, and not those of his family or the world in which he was raised.

This novel also illustrates the basic need for all human beings to control their own destiny, especially in times of great upheaval, “when they had as much control of its outcome as a floating leaf had to determine the course of a river.” Examples abound in Warley’s book, from Carter’s spying for the Confederates, the decision by Sonja and her mother to become missionaries, and the desire of freedmen to fight for the Union cause and own their own land. And while their actions may not have significantly altered the world in which they lived, it altered them personally, giving them the strength and purpose to persevere.

Writing with moving detail, touching vulnerability and a deep sense of optimism for the Lowcountry’s people and land, Warley has crafted a most enjoyable and enlightening novel of our South during the Civil War years. Readers, sit back and enjoy the lesson.

Reviewer Suzanne Eisinger is a freelance writer living on Hilton Head Island.

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