Originally created 05/05/02

Civil rights the focus of book-club selection



Atlanta writer Melissa Fay Greene couldn't have made up this story.

Praying for Sheetrock - her book about a rural Georgia community's late awakening to civil rights in the 1970s - could only happen in real life, Ms. Greene says. It's one of the things that draws her to nonfiction writing - the ability to uncover stories more interesting than anything she could ever come up with on her own.

"The truth always surprises me and exceeds my expectations," she said in a telephone interview. "If I made it up ... it would be predictable. Real life takes you to places beyond your imagination."

Praying for Sheetrock, published in 1991, chronicles the effort of black citizens in coastal McIntosh County to achieve government representation, aided by attorneys from the Georgia Legal Services Program. Into the 1970s, the civil rights movement had largely bypassed the county and its county seat of Darien. A corrupt sheriff ran the area, all businesses were white-owned, and the black population lived in shacks - evoked in Ms. Greene's descriptive narrative - without plumbing, electricity or other modern amenities.

Ms. Greene was a paralegal with the legal services attorneys.

Sheetrock was named one of 25 books every Georgian should read by the Georgia Center for the Book, which promotes literacy and state literature. It is the May selection for The Augusta Chronicle's book club.

Ms. Greene calls Praying for Sheetrock a story of "the drive toward freedom among people who have been deprived of it." She tells of visiting Warsaw shortly after the book was published, when Communism fell and the Polish population was creating democracy from scratch.

She realized she'd found and told the same story in Darien.

Against an evocative backdrop of the county and its saltwater marshes, Sheetrock presents richly complex descriptions of the people caught up in the events: Sheriff Tom Poppell ruled with an iron hand and had been heard to comment that the way to control black people was to keep them hungry - but he also stood by and allowed the poverty-stricken populace to carry off shoes and other necessities, including Sheetrock, when tractor-trailers crashed and spilled their loads on U.S. Highway 17.

There's also Thurnell Alston, who refused to drink at the black-only water fountain at the business where he worked. He challenged the status quo but battled depression and apathy and was accused of taking bribes in his position on the county commission.

The mix of good and bad in the people whose lives are chronicled is one of the strengths of the book, Ms. Greene said.

"I think that's exactly what human life is like," she said.

She contrasts Sheetrock to her second book, The Temple Bombing, in which "the good guy stays good and the bad guy stays bad - and where's the fun in that?" She thinks Sheetrock is the stronger story.

She followed Sheetrock with The Temple Bombing, which chronicles the bombing of Atlanta's oldest synagogue by neo-Nazi extremists in 1958 and community reaction to the event. She recently finished a third book, not yet published, about a coal mine disaster in Nova Scotia, also in 1958, and its aftermath.

Tentatively titled The Last Man Out, the book follows the reaction when the state of Georgia, trying to promote segregated Jekyll Island as a resort area, invited the injured miners to recuperate there - only to discover the last man rescued was black.

"The human storytelling inclination is old as time," she said. "It's old as cave paintings, older than Homer, and we will tell stories."

BOOK CLUB

The Augusta Chronicle's book club meets at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 16 at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 1336 Augusta West Parkway. The group will discuss the first half of Praying for Sheetrock, a nonfiction book by Georgia writer Melissa Fay Greene ($14, 335 page paperback, Ballentine Books).

To participate in an electronic discussion of the book, go to augustachronicle.com/forums. The book discussion is under the Lifestyles heading at the bottom of the page. For more information, call 823-3223.

Reach Alisa DeMao at (706) 823-3223 or ademao@augustachronicle.com.