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Finalist for the 1991 National Book Award and a New York Times Notable book, Praying for Sheetrock is the story of McIntosh County, a small, isolated, and lovely place on the flowery coast of Georgia—and a county where, in the 1970s, the white sheriff still wielded all the power, controlling everything and everybody. Somehow the sweeping changes of the civil rights movement managed to bypass McIntosh entirely. It took one uneducated, unemployed black man, Thurnell Alston, to challenge the sheriff and his ...
Finalist for the 1991 National Book Award and a New York Times Notable book, Praying for Sheetrock is the story of McIntosh County, a small, isolated, and lovely place on the flowery coast of Georgia—and a county where, in the 1970s, the white sheriff still wielded all the power, controlling everything and everybody. Somehow the sweeping changes of the civil rights movement managed to bypass McIntosh entirely. It took one uneducated, unemployed black man, Thurnell Alston, to challenge the sheriff and his courthouse gang—and to change the way of life in this community forever. "An inspiring and absorbing account of the struggle for human dignity and racial equality" (Coretta Scott King)
Rural McIntosh County, Georgia, in the 1970s was bypassed by the civil rights movement, until one unemployed, uneducated black man changed life in McIntosh County forever. As evocative of the South as Faulkner and as compulsively readable as well-crafted fiction, Greene's multi-award-winning memoir will captivate everyone who believes that the fight for equality is worth waging.
1. The people of McIntosh County heard whispers of the
Civil Rights movement that rocked the rest of the country
during the 1960s, Greene tells us, but the county’s
own political awakening was delayed by nearly a decade.
What was it about this coastal region in the South that
slowed social progress? Was it the geographical isolation?
Was it the small size of the county? Did the fact
that blacks and whites knew each other personally make
the racial caste system less flexible? Or was the social
delay due to the strong-arm tactics of local politics instituted
by a powerful sheriff and legions of supporters?
2. 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 enforcedpowerlessness of the region’s black
citizens. As the author writes, 'the Sheriff cared less
about the colors black and white than he did about
the color green. . . .' How much of racism is hatred
and prejudice, and how much of it is simply a means to
maintain power and control?
3. As the rumblings of social change became more noticeable
in McIntosh County, the Tuesday and Thursday night
prayer meetings at Shorters Chapel African Methodist
Episcopal Church veered from being exclusively religious
to being primarily political. Sharing the pulpit
with Reverend Grovner, Brother Thurnell Alston spoke
of local issues and reaimed the sacred words of the
Bible, not unlike the community’s enslaved forebears, to
address the political and social needs of the community.
How did the African American church use the faith
to strengthen its members to address issues of social
justice? At the same time, how did the Southern white
church use the same faith to perpetuate the status quo?
Are houses of worship, in both white and African American
society, still the cradles of social change?
4. Thurnell Alston’s election as county commissioner was a
historic victory, one that made Alston appreciate his heralded
role in the fight for civil rights. But within moments
of winning, seeing the disgust on the faces of his
white opposition, Alston knew that the message behind
his election was not as absolute as he might have hoped.
In what ways was Alston’s win at the polls merely a momentary
victory? How much was winning worth, both to
Alston the politician and Alston the husband and father?
5. As a county commissioner, Alston was known as a devoted
fighter, directly responsible for a new medical facility
in a black area and a social program that aided
impoverished homeowners with much-needed renovations.
At the same time, Alston was considered an annoying
needler, always disagreeing with the status quo.
Were these two opinions of Alston based solely on racial
perspective, with blacks seeing him as an effective power
broker and whites as a rabble-rouser? Or was Commissioner
Alston really both noble and pesky at once?
6. David Walbert, one of the GLSP (Georgia Legal Services
Program) lawyers, said of black leaders like Thurnell Alston:
'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. What are the factors that
led to Alston’s disgrace? Was it Alston’s misguided desire
to please everyone in sight? Was it yet another example
of white authority out to discredit black progress? Or was
it simply further proof that power corrupts?
7. In the chapter entitled 'Praying for Sheetrock,' the author
delineates three levels of history: the first, the
accepted public history; the second, the specific local
history; the third, the private stories of every individual.
Among all the strange and wonderful stories in the book,
which level of history is most represented? Which level
of history seems the most important to the people of Darien,
and to the people of the surrounding country? In the stories
you weave of your own lives, describe the interlacing
of public history, local history, and secret inner truths.
8. Greene relies heavily on the voices of her subjects to tell
the story of the political movement of McIntosh County.
The rich language of the black community, called Gullah,
is described as 'half-wild and lovely,' while Thurnell
Alston’s choppy, meandering speech is likened to
'parallel parking on a busy street.' Why is voice so important
in this book? How do particularities of speech
connect a community and, at the same time, create gaps
among its citizens? Describe the accents and dialects
and lingos common to your community. Are there accents
you’ve encountered in life that you’ve particularly
loved? Are there dialects that feel alien to you? Have
you adopted turns-of-phrase from other cultures into
your own vocabulary?
9. 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. In what
ways does the title, Praying for Sheetrock, touch on the
many issues—political, social, and religious—in Greene’s
work of nonfiction?
10. 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,
as the critics say, 'read just like a novel.' What are the
novelistic techniques Greene employs to make her story
come vibrantly alive? What makes Praying for Sheetrock
a first-rate piece of storytelling rather than a generic
chronicle of a political event?
Posted March 11, 2010