Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock is a well-researched, detail-oriented, unhurried read about a tumultuous time in the history of McIntosh County, Georgia. Greene explores difficult subjects with objectivity and understanding, and she tells a good story.
Greene’s approach to this narrative work of non-fiction is rich with personal details that reveal the good and the flaws in all of the characters who populate the story. Greene elegantly ties each of these personal stories into the larger historical epoch. The struggle for civil rights was slow to arrive to McIntosh County, a community Greene describes as living in a state of “civilized repression” and “good manners” until an event of shocking violence “violated the unspoken social contract that allowed the whites and the outcast blacks to live in peace” (p. 122-3). While some readers may find Greene’s style and language cumbersome and overly detailed, I found that the meticulous language she used not only enriched my understanding of the events in the work, but also evoked the overall pace of coastal Georgia, where I currently reside. I found that Greene’s deep dive into intimate detail helped me understand better what was at stake for the inhabitants of McIntosh County as they attempted to reconcile their personal experience (with their history, their community, and their law makers) with the awakening of the local black community to their civil rights and to their own power.
Though Greene’s story contributes to our national narrative of our ongoing American civil rights struggles, Praying for Sheetrock is ultimately a story of people. Noble and flawed people, who are sometimes horrible and sometimes heroic, and often both. In the hands of another author, this cast of unbelievable characters–including a Robin Hood style white sheriff, flawed black community organizer, and a group of eager Yankee lawyers–could have become a farce. Thankfully, Greene presents this real life cast with a thought provoking honesty that serves this story, and the reader, well.
Further Reading & Exploration
Greene’s Website includes more information about her published work, her media appearances, and her upcoming events.
Georgia Writers Hall of Fame interviews: Melissa Fay Greene
The Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, under the leadership of the University of Georgia Librarian, honors Georgia’s writers, literature, and cultural history. The Georgia Writer’s Hall of Fame honoree page for Greene honors her for both her extensive research and her “personal approach” to the subjects of her work.
The New York Times Review of Praying for Sheet Rock
The 1991 New York Times “Book of The Times” review of Praying for Sheet Rock, written at the time the book was published, is a concise and well-written summary of Greene’s work.
Through the Lens of Photographer Walker Evans from Georgia Public Broadcasting
In Praying for Sheetrock, Greene refers to Walker Evans’ photographs of rural poverty to provide context to the poverty and living conditions of McIntosh County, Georgia in the 1970s. The above link leads to a Georgia Public Broadcasting page that includes a brief slideshow of highlights of Evans’ work; an audio interview with Alex Harris, who was a student of Evans; and, a video that combines Evans’ photography and his own reflections on his experiences as a photographer.
The Featured Image for this post is from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Collection, a collection of photographs, prints, and other still media that documents the lives of Americans and our collective history.
Title: A Greyhound bus trip from Louisville, Kentucky, to Memphis, Tennessee, and the terminals. Sign at bus station. Rome, Georgia
- Creator(s): Bubley, Esther, photographer
- Date Created/Published: 1943 Sept.
- Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller.
- Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-fsa-8d33365 (digital file from original neg.) LC-USW3-037939-E (b&w film nitrate neg.) LC-USZ62-75338 (b&w film copy neg. from file print)
- Rights Advisory: No known restrictions. For information, see U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs(http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/071_fsab.html)
- Call Number: LC-USW3- 037939-E [P&P]
- Other Number: E 5153
- Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print