Sometimes when I read a book, for years after, I remember the story. With others, it is simply a sentence that I recall even when I can’t remember the whole (or even a part) of the rest of the book. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is like that for me – I have only a vague recollection of the story, but I always remember the lyrical language (“Rahel drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge.”)
In Praying for Sheetrock, it is a sentence in the prologue: “The McIntosh County Volunteer Fire Department truck arrived first, unfurling a long red scarf of sound on the county roads behind it.” I always think of that red scarf of sound whenever I see a fire truck. It is such a perfect sentence. And it evokes the time and the place and the feeling of the night when the story begins (though, it is not the beginning of the story.)
Melissa Greene’s lyrical language pulls you in to a county in south Georgia at the beginning of the civil rights movement – though they did not know it was the beginning until long after. It is “a chronicle of large and important things happening in a very little place. It is about the end of the good old boy era and the rise of civil rights, and what that famous epoch looked like, sounded like, smelled like, and felt like in a Georgia backwater in the 1970s.”
I loved this book the first time I read it and have gone back to read parts of it over the years. It has a special place on my bookshelf because a dear friend sent me a copy as a gift with a card inside that said “those of us who spend our lives tilting at windmills must read this book.”
He was right. It made me wish I had been born earlier so that I would have been old enough to have lived through the Civil Rights Movement as an adult — I would hope that I would have been there as a Freedom Rider…. and I always appreciated the small details described – I felt like I might be able to really understand something that was, before, unfathomable: the racist actions of small time Southerners against their neighbors and colleagues and classmates. I felt like I got a glimpse into the lives of people I could never have known and I came away richer for it.
Then later, Melissa Fay Greene would literally change the direction of my life –her article in the New York Times Magazine “What Will Become of Africa’s AIDS Orphans” contained this paragraph:
‘This is the most devastating pandemic to sweep the earth for many centuries,” says Dr. Mark Rosenberg, executive director of the Atlanta-based Task Force for Child Survival and Development. He compares the moral imperative to stop the epidemic in Africa, Asia and South America to the era of the Holocaust and imagines that future generations will ask, ”What did you do to help?”
For months I could not get that last sentence out of my mind: What can I do to help? What will I do? I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Greene and told her how her article had inspired me to try to do something, but I had no idea where to start. “Call Merrily Ripley” she replied. And I did. I ended up spending 4 months volunteering at the orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia that she ran, where I fell in love with the children and the culture and all of Ethiopia. I ultimately decided to adopt my twin daughters, and also was able to spend time with Melissa as she wrote about the amazing Haregewoin Teferra in “There is No Me Without You” (but that’s another book for another review some other week.)
It is rare that one book has so much impact on one’s life – but Praying for Sheetrock did for me. If I had not read and loved it, I would not have sought out Melissa’s other writing and I would never have gone to Ethiopia, never met my daughters, never gotten so engaged in the very civil rights work that Praying for Sheetrock introduced me to way back when. I read this book the first time when I was ‘tilting at windmills’ doing death penalty work in Texas, but it remains a touchstone for me when I think about how individuals can, and do, send out a “tiny ripple of hope” like the African Americans in McIntosh County that Melissa writes about did.