Melissa Fay Greene has won her National Book Award for “Praying for Sheetrock” (1991), her one of the two award-winning books describing dramatic episodes in the civil rights movement in Georgia. Focusing on individuals who played important roles in these events, Greene vividly illuminates issues and conflicts that shaped the state in the latter half of the twentieth century. Moreover “Praying for Sheetrock” was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Awar, won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and the Lillian Smith Book Award, among others.
A panel of judges under the aegis of New York University cited the novel as one of the top 100 works of American journalism in the 20th century. The author of this great book, Melissa Fay Greene, was born in Macon. In 1959 the family moved to Dayton, Ohio, where she grew up and attended school. In 1975 she received her B. A. degree in English with high honors from Oberlin College and subsequently returned to Georgia to work with her husband, attorney, for the Savannah office of the Georgia Legal Services Program. In the course of that job she began her research for what would become her first book.
It is necessary to underline that “Greene is one of a growing number of authors who write literary nonfiction. In her works she uses the basic elements of fiction—themes, eloquent prose, characterization, plot development – to tell the story of important episodes in the state’s and the nation’s recent history. ”  Although her articles in such newspapers and magazines as the New Yorker, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, Ms. , and other publications demonstrate her wonderful gifts as a journalist, Greene excels in longer works.
Greene’s first book, “Praying for Sheetrock”, chronicles the coming of the civil rights movement to McIntosh County in coastal Georgia in the 1970s. The title of Melissa Fay Greene’s book comes from the episode featuring Miss Fanny Palmer, the daughter of slaves, sitting in her ramshackle cabin in the South Georgia woods, freezing for lack of proper insulation. Unable to pay for necessary work on her home and ineligible for support from a local government run by whites, all Miss Fanny can do is pray for Sheetrock.
The book itself tells about the power struggle between the black and white citizens of the county. The author focuses the attention of the readers on the white sheriff, who has run the county for thirty-one years, and the young African American who becomes the spokesman for his disenfranchised community. By describing the rise and fall of both men, and telling a story that does not conclude with the usual happy victory for truth and justice, Greene shows that her real interests are the vagaries of human character.
In her work, Greene has explained, “I have tried to combine serious and honorable journalistic and historical research with love of language; to create works of literary richness, pleasing to the senses, gripping to the intellect, yet reliable and true. I believe in the power of words to penetrate deeply and subtly into real past worlds and events; I disdain the use of words to distort, conceal, or rearrange when performed in the name of nonfiction.
”  Her vivid prose style, understanding of the complexity of human character and historical event, sense of drama, and moral convictions enable her to write works of nonfiction that have all the virtues of the best literature. Somehow, the sweeping changes of the civil rights movement had bypassed rural McIntosh County, Georgia. In the 1970s, the white sheriff there still wielded all power; he controlled everyone and everything. It took one uneducated, unemployed black man with a passion for justice to take him on and win, changing life in McIntosh County forever.
This story is a close-up of two recent decades in the history of McIntosh County, a place of scenic beauty and social imbalance on the Atlantic coast of southern Georgia. The contrasting main figures in the narrative are Thurnell Alston, an uneducated, impoverished and disabled machinist ultimately as noble, eloquent, one of the black leaders, of whom David Walbert, one of the GLSP (Georgia Legal Services Program) lawyers, said: “I now realize that I—that we—idealized the black civil rights people.
They represented something we were looking for, but they were regular human beings. They were real people, and real people are imperfect. ”  Alston, both regular and imperfect, leaves political office not as a hero but as a convicted felon. and fatally flawed as a Shakespearean king, and his adversary High Sheriff Tom Poppell, the corrupt overlord of a time and place where “the only crime that existed… was Tom Poppell’s. ”  For thirty-one years, Sheriff Tom Poppell ruled the county, manipulating every aspect of community life from the county jail and sheriff ’s office.
With Poppell at the helm, McIntosh County may not have been the most reputable place in the South, but it prospered nonetheless. A strange sort of racial harmony existed there despite the enforced powerlessness of the region’s black citizens. The stories of these two men, neither of them all saint or all sinner, are set against a chorus of local residents whose soliloquies, whether spoken in the Gullah dialect of an illiterate, ancient, God fearing lifelong resident born to former slaves or the refined bohemianism of young Ivy League lawyers reared in northern affluence, seem equal parts Faulkner and Greek tragedy.
The end result is less an extolling of virtues or an expose of vice, but an oddly coherent rambling true saga that reminds the reader of the difference one person can make, of the nobility in the most desperate of people, and that the key to a happy ending is in when you stop the story. It is true that not everybody in America got the word right away about the civil rights movement.
Thus it was that well into the 1970s, McIntosh County in backwoods Georgia remained a place where the black majority still had never elected one of their own to any county office, where black kids were bused away from the white school, and where the white county sheriff had his hand in every racket there was. “Praying for Sheetrock” is the saga of how, thanks to the leadership of a black shop-steward-turned-county-commissioner named Thurnell Alston, together with the aid of a cadre of idealistic Legal Services lawyers (Melissa Greene was one of their paralegals) this situation began to change.
Greene relies heavily on the voices of her subjects to tell the story of the political movement of McIntosh County. As a work of nonfiction, “Praying for Sheetrock” is not inflated by facts and figures, or from layer upon layer of dry historical information. Melissa Fay Greene uses a variety of intriguing literary tools—poetic language, quirky character details, authentic dialogue—to make the book read just like a novel. Greene laid out the characters and the scene in such a way to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions to the facts, giving equal voice to all parties.
Though the heroes and villians are obvious, she doesn’t portray them in a straight forward way. It opens with a complete and thorough description of everything surrounding the actual story, which gives the reader the feeling that they are there – a part of it – before all is said and done. The research she did on the subject to offer a tale told with all sides is commendable. That is why one could recommend this book to anybody who would like to get an overview about the civil rights movement in Georgia.
Any reader has a chance to develop his own opinion about the subject “Praying for Sheetrock” is a book about that one man, his victory and his ultimate fall from grace. Though easy to read, it is a difficult book to describe as it seems, consecutively and concurrently, to be oral history, travelogue, drama, sociology, journalism, morality play, and comedy, a work of impassioned objectivity whose real life characters become a microcosm not just of a backwater county but somehow of the world itself. This book represents a monumental social history.
Through a masterful combination of oral history and interpretive narrative, Greene has created a work of great drama, a chorus of voices that is both disturbing and inspiring.
1. Melissa Fay Greene. Retrieved from the Web July 26, 2004. http://www. georgiaencyclopedia. org/nge/Article. jsp? id=h-489 2. Melissa Fay Greene. Praying for Sheetrock. Ballantine Books. October 1992. 3. About Melissa Fay Greene. Retrieved from the Web July 26, 2004. http://library. gcsu. edu/~jdarby/biography. html