Praying for Sheetrock Summary

Melissa Fay Greene

Praying for Sheetrock

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Praying for Sheetrock Summary

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Praying for Sheetrock is a work of nonfiction from journalist Melissa Fay Greene. The narrative takes place in an idyllic, back-roads swath of Georgia landscape, where time has seemingly stood still. This concept of time standing still, while usually a nostalgic or lamented event, is made all the more compelling by Greene in that the county in question is stuck in segregation despite the outer world’s progress towards human rights for all after the Civil Rights Movement. When life does in fact begin to change, the death of the status quo is indeed lamented by whites, while being embraced by blacks and progressives.

The narrative centers on McIntosh County, a poor coastal region in Georgia. Until the 1970s, this quiet enclave had gone practically untouched by the racial issues of the day, allowing blacks and whites to live in “harmony.” This harmony, however, comes with a price. Greene’s story relates how a sheriff named Tom Poppell holds all of the power in the county, making rules and running the county like his own little country. As such, whites exist as royalty or nobles, while blacks take on the roles of serfs. Black children are bused away to different schools from their white counterparts, and there has never been a black official voted to office, or even allowed to run and represent the large black population in the county. Greene paints a picture of a happy servitude on the part of the black inhabitants, with a resulting happy white population that benefits from the serfdom.

The “ideal” world of McIntosh County is then rocked when Thurnell Alston, a black, retired boilermaker who eventually rises to become the first black county commissioner, begins to challenge corrupt sheriff Poppell’s system of patronage. Into the fray come a number of lawyers, who are known to locals as modern-day “carpetbaggers.” With the help of these lawyers, however, Alston seeks to effect change and bring McIntosh County up to par with the rest of the country as far as the Civil Rights Movement’s success in bringing about human rights for blacks.

Greene herself brings personal experience to the narrative in Praying for Sheetrock. As a paralegal, she worked alongside legal-aid lawyers whose job was to go into various Georgia counties that were ruled by this extra-legal law and bring about reform in the lawlessness of the rural South. As is the case with McIntosh County, one-half of the population was not even represented based on the fact that the prevailing legal umbrella only shielded whites. Even though the rest of the country had gone through, and was still dealing with the changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement, McIntosh County chose to exist as if nothing had changed. The lawyers themselves are hard-pressed when they come up against the community’s seeming unwillingness to bring about positive change in the lives of all, including blacks.

Though the narrative showcases how change begins and highlights Alston’s attempt at taking down the “good old boy” way of politics, as a work of nonfiction, the narrative does not leave every plot twist with a happy ending, as fiction often does. Indeed, Thurnell Alston becomes a victim of the corrupt government, which is told in a sad, but suspenseful style by Greene. Alston begins his pursuit of progress with vigor, but after a time, becomes distanced from his constituency. His youngest son dies tragically in 1983, and due to this setback, Alston begins distancing himself from his wife and children as well. In a shocking turn of events, Alston is targeted in a government sting operation and convicted of drug conspiracy charges in 1988. He is subsequently sentenced to six and a half years in federal prison, and was still incarcerated at the time of the novel’s initial publication.

Greene laces her narrative with interviews and retellings that are fleshed out by descriptive narratives. As a work of nonfiction concerning the injustices of the rural South, it works as a compelling and moral read about social change. Praying for Sheetrock also works as a symbolic theme that highlights the importance of progress and change on a global, universal scale.