In the New Yorker review of Melissa Fay Greene's debut book, Praying for Sheetrock (1991), James Lardner writes, "Greene's achievement recalls Jane Austen's description of her novels as fine brushwork on a 'little bit (two inches wide) of ivory'...." Greene is a gifted journalist with a novelist's eye for detail, and the four award-winning books that have preceded No Biking in the House Without a Helmet are constructed around memorable, finely drawn characters and carefully observed settings.
Praying for Sheetrock (1991) examines the culture of McIntosh County, a tiny, rural locale on the coast of Georgia where civil rights fail to arrive, even well into the 1970s. Greene tells the true story of an entrenched and crooked white sheriff, Tom Poppell; an idealistic black civil-rights activist, Thurnell Alston; and outside interference in the form of Georgia Legal Services lawyers and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) paralegals. (Greene joined VISTA in 1975 after she graduated from Oberlin; this is how she happened upon the story.) The book is a narrative history, constructed from many interviews and recollections, and its political message is of the subtle, discerning kind where nothing turns out to be completely black or white. Praying for Sheetrock was nominated for a National Book Award and has been listed as one of the top 100 works of journalism of the 20th century by the journalism faculty at New York University.
Her second book, The Temple Bombing (1996), returns to Georgia and to the theme of civil rights. Greene recounts the 1958 bombing of the oldest synagogue in Atlanta, "The Temple," targeted by white supremacists who were upset by the rabbi presiding there, Jacob Rothschild, and his liberal views on civil rights. She reconstructs an era of domestic terrorism not seen since the Civil War, and untangles the threads of racist fears, anti-Semitism, and social change surrounding the bombing and its aftermath. The Temple Bombing was also nominated for a National Book Award.
In Last Man Out (2003), Greene chronicles an event that takes place just days after the Temple bombing in Georgia, but far away in Nova Scotia - a catastrophic coal mine collapse known as the Springhill Mine Disaster. The dramatic search for survivors turns into a televised media event - the first, Greene argues, of a very modern phenomenon.
The subject of her fourth book, There Is No Me Without You (2006), is Mrs. Haregewoin Teferra, an Ethiopian foster mom who cares for hundreds of children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. Greene meets and comes to know Mrs. Teferra in the process of adopting her daughter Helen and her son Fisseha. She writes the book to document the grave situation that African orphans face and to give a lively voice to the effected children.
For more information, visit Melissa Fay Greene's website for her Good Housekeeping article about post-adoption depression, a public radio story about her son Fisseha, and a blog tally of other ridiculous things she's blurted out to the kids. Or visit the WNYC website to hear Leonard Lopate interview Melissa Fay Greene (May 2011).
This article was originally published in June 2011, and has been updated for the
April 2012 paperback release.
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