Melissa Fay Greene (b. 1952)
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Melissa Fay Greene's award-winning books Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing chronicle dramatic episodes in the civil rights movement in Georgia. Focusing on individuals who played important roles in these events, Greene vividly illuminates issues and conflicts that shaped the state in the latter half of the twentieth century. She was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2013 Greene was recognized with a Georgia Governor's Award for the Arts and Humanities.
Melissa Fay Greene, the daughter of Rosalyn Pollock and Gerald A. Greene, was born on December 30, 1952, in Macon. In 1959 the family moved to Dayton, Ohio, where she grew up and attended school. In 1975 she received her B.A. degree with high honors from Oberlin College and subsequently returned to Georgia to work with her husband for the Savannah office of the Georgia Legal Services Program. In the course of that job she began research for what would become her first book. Greene's husband, Donald Franklin Samuel, is an Atlanta criminal defense attorney; they are the parents of five children.
Greene is one of a growing number of authors who write literary nonfiction. She uses the basic elements of fiction—themes, eloquent prose, characterization, plot development—to tell the story of important episodes in the state's and the nation's recent history. Although her articles in the New Yorker, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, Ms., and other publications demonstrate her gifts as a journalist, she excels in longer works.
In her work, Greene has explained, "I have tried to combine serious and honorable journalistic and historical research with love of language; to create works of literary richness, pleasing to the senses, gripping to the intellect, yet reliable and true. I believe in the power of words to penetrate deeply and subtly into real past worlds and events; I disdain the use of words to distort, conceal, or rearrange when performed in the name of nonfiction." Greene's vivid prose style, understanding of the complexity of human character and historical event, sense of drama, and moral convictions enable her to write works of nonfiction that have all the virtues of the best literature.
Greene's first book, Praying for Sheetrock (1991), chronicles the coming of the civil rights movement to McIntosh County in coastal Georgia in the 1970s. It narrates the power struggle between the black and white citizens of the county, focusing on the white sheriff, who has run the county for thirty-one years, and the young African American who becomes the spokesman for his disenfranchised community. By describing the rise and fall of both men, and telling a story that does not conclude with the usual happy victory for truth and justice, Greene shows that her real interests are the vagaries of human character.
Praying for Sheetrock was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and the Lillian Smith Book Award (named for Georgia writer Lillian Smith and administered by the Southern Regional Council), among others. A panel of judges under the aegis of New York University cited the book as one of the top 100 works of American journalism in the twentieth century. It was also adapted as a play and performed in the spring of 1997 by Lifeline Theater in Chicago.
Similar interests are clearly evident in Greene's second book, The Temple Bombing (1996). Here she focuses on Jacob Rothschild, rabbi of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in Atlanta, whose temple was bombed by still-unidentified individuals in October 1958; a group of white racists whom many thought responsible for the bombing, though they were ultimately acquitted of the crime; and the lawyers who both defended and tried to prosecute them, the flamboyant Reuben Garland among them. Greene treats this bombing as a symbolic moment in the history of Atlanta: until the bombing, "the City Too Busy to Hate" had avoided much of the strife experienced by other southern cities during the backlash against court-ordered integration that shook the region in the 1950s and 1960s. Greene illuminates Rabbi Rothschild's campaign to convince his congregation of the moral necessity of the civil rights movement, in which they became a leading force. She describes as well negotiations between black and white leaders as they sought peaceful racial coexistence and a climate welcoming to business.
Writing in the Washington Post, Julius Lester calls The Temple Bombing "an important book that brings to life a pivotal time and place in Southern history. Rabbi Jacob Rothschild's story deserves, as Greene puts it, "to be rescued from the collective historical amnesia." The book was also a National Book Award finalist and won several awards, including the Southern Book Critics Circle Award.
Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster (2003) at first seems to depart from Greene's earlier interest in Georgia's social history. The book narrates the Nova Scotia mine disaster that gripped the nation's attention in 1958, in which dozens of men were given up for dead before nineteen were unexpectedly rescued after more than a week trapped underground. Written as a kind of documentary novel—relying on meticulous research and including numerous interviews and oral accounts—the book examines the lives of the miners and their families, the causes of the disaster, the plight of the men who lay trapped in the darkness underground, and the aftermath, during which the rescued miners became victims of a different type.
Greene's interest in the civil rights movement becomes evident in her attention to one of the miners, Maurice Ruddick, who is African American, and to Georgia governor M
arvin Griffin, who as a publicity stunt invites the miners to vacation at a segregated Jekyll Island resort after their rescue, before discovering that one of them is black. The book thus manages to illuminate and examine the links between various aspects of twentieth-century culture: the coal miners of Nova Scotia, segregated Georgia in the 1950s, the civil rights movement, and the rise of the mass media in modern society.
In 2006 Greene published her fourth book, There Is No Me without You. In yet another departure from her Georgia-based histories, the book offers a poignant portrait of Haregewoin Teferra, an Ethiopian widow who lost her daughter to AIDS and soon thereafter adopted a teenaged girl whose own parents had died of the disease. This, in turn, led to the adoption of other children, so that Teferra's home soon became an orphanage and day-care center for dozens of children who had lost their parents to the epidemic.
In 2011, with the publication of No Biking in the House without a Helmet, Greene turned again to a Georgia story: the story of her own family and its evolution. This lighthearted memoir of parenting follows the expansion of Greene's family from four biological children to a total of nine, five of whom Greene and her husband Don Samuel adopted from foreign orphanages—one from Bulgaria and four from Ethiopia.
Greene published her sixth book, The Underdogs, in 2016. This book tells the true story of Karen Shirk, who fell victim to a devastating neuromuscular disease at the age of twenty-four. After rejections from multiple service dog agencies, Shirk established her own service dog academy, 4 Paws for Ability, which has produced thousands of highly trained service dogs for severely disabled children. Greene weaves Shirk's story with individual portraits of suffering families and reporting on the latest scientific discoveries about humankind's co-evolution with dogs.