Greene, Melissa Fay 1952-
GREENE, Melissa Fay 1952-
PERSONAL: Born December 30, 1952, in Macon, GA; daughter of Gerald A. (a financial planner) and Rosalyn (a bookkeeper and homemaker; maiden name, Pollock) Greene; married Donald Franklin Samuel (an attorney), April 15, 1979; children: Molly Ilana, Seth, Lee Harry, Lily, Jesse, Helen. Education: Oberlin College, B.A. (with high honors), 1975. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Home and office—1708 East Clifton Rd. NE, Atlanta, GA 30307. Agent—David Block, 220 Fifth Ave., Suite 1400, New York, NY 10001.
CAREER: Paralegal for General Assistance Legal Services Program, in Savannah, GA, 1975-79, and Rome, GA, 1980-81; writer.
AWARDS, HONORS: Excellence in Journalism Award, Society of Professional Journalists, 1988, for the article "That Old Lonesome High Hollerin' Tenor"; National Book Award finalist, nonfiction, 1991, National Book Critics Circle Award in general nonfiction, Robert F. Kennedy Award, Lillian Smith Award, Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, Georgia Author Award, and Lyndhurst Prize fellowship, all 1992, for Praying for Sheetrock; Praying for Sheetrock was also cited as a Notable Book for 1991 by both the American Library Association and the New York Times; Southern Book Critics Circle Award, Georgia Author of the Year Award, Georgia Historical Society Book Award, and National Book Award nomination, all for The Temple Bombing.
Praying for Sheetrock: A Work of Non-Fiction, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1991.
The Temple Bombing, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1996.
Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2003.
Work represented in anthologies, including Writing: The Translation of Memory, edited by Eve Shelnutt, Macmillan, 1990; and The Confidence Woman: Twenty-six Writers at Work, edited by Eve Shelnutt, Longstreet Press, 1991. Columnist, Financial Planning, 1983-88. Contributor of articles and reviews to magazines and newspapers, including Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, New York Times, Life, Parenting, Landscape Architecture, Museum News, Atlantic, Southern Exposure, Country Journal, Stagebill, and Iowa Review.
ADAPTATIONS: The Temple Bombing was adapted as a sound recording by Audio Renaissance, 1996; Praying for Sheetrock was adapted as a play and produced at Lifeline Theatre, Chicago, IL, 1997.
SIDELIGHTS: Journalist Melissa Fay Greene is a highly respected author of narrative nonfiction books—works that tell factually accurate stories using literary techniques typically employed by fiction authors. Using this method has earned her numerous awards, including two National Book Award nominations for her first two books: Praying for Sheetrock: A Work of Non-Fiction and The Temple Bombing. Sometimes considered a southern writer because of her roots in Georgia, though she was largely raised in Ohio, Greene has made it her ongoing concern to write about racism and prejudice, especially racism against African Americans or Jews.
Her first book, Praying for Sheetrock, is set in McIntosh County, Georgia, during the 1970s. Although the Civil Rights Act had by this time been signed into law, the community is still sharply divided between blacks and whites; and the local sheriff, Tom Popell, rules the area by manipulating elections and intimidating the citizenry. The conflict of Greene's story arises when shop steward Thurnell Alston decides to oppose Popell, managing to help the local black population with the aid of the Assistance Legal Service Program. In the end, however, the white sheriff is "exonerated on charges of extortion, narcotics trafficking, and counterfeiting," reported a Contemporary Southern Writers essayist, while Alston is ironically subjected to a government sting and jailed on drug charges. "By turns inspiring and sad, [Alston's] story is told with dramatic skill," concluded a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
After the success of Praying for Sheetrock, Greene's publisher suggested she might write a book about the Ku Klux Klan, or perhaps a history about Jews in the American South. Greene, however, felt these topics were too sweeping for her; instead, she decided to focus on a single event and use this as an example of the problems with racism. The result was The Temple Bombing, the story of how, on October 12, 1958, the Reform Jewish Temple in Atlanta was bombed with fifty sticks of dynamite. The attack, it was strongly suspected, was the result of white racists who did not like Rabbi Jacob Rothschild's outspoken position in favor of integration. Five arrests were made in the case, but only one man, George Bright, actually went to trial, and he was eventually acquitted. To this day, no one has been found guilty of the crime. As both a Jew and a southerner, Greene was particularly interested in the story; she even managed to interview Bright, though she became convinced that he was not one of the perpetrators. But although Greene never managed to get the "deathbed confession" she sought, "the more significant point," noted Jim Auchmutey in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "is the way Atlanta rallied around the shaken synagogue." She also wanted to tell the story of Rabbi Rothschild, who had the courage to get involved in the racism issue despite resistance from his conservative congregants, who would have preferred to remain neutral observers.
The The Temple Bombing, like its predecessor, received numerous literary awards and earned Greene the title of Georgia Author of the Year. However, some critics did not feel it was as strong a book as Praying for Sheetrock. One Publishers Weekly reviewer, for example, complained that Greene "opts for a shrill tone where balance would suffice." And Washington Monthly critic J. Anthony Lukas said that, although he "found much to admire" in The Temple Bombing, he "found it a less fully realized work." On the other hand, a People contributor concluded that Greene "delivers a compassionate account of an intolerant era that doesn't devolve into an avenging witch-hunt for the perpetrators."
Although Greene's next book, Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster, is about a tragedy in Nova Scotia instead of Georgia, the story still has strong connections to the South. The center of the story is a mine disaster that occurred in Springhill, Nova Scotia, on October 23, 1958. Seventy-five miners of the nearly two hundred men in the mine at the time died; of the survivors, nineteen men were trapped underground for over a week before they were rescued. When they were finally saved, they became the subject of a media circus. Some of the heroes of the story who helped keep the others alive during their ordeal were exploited by the governor of Georgia—a segregationist—who separated them into black and white groups, treating each differently despite their equal merits. "The book's most fascinating sections deal with the peculiar nature of heroism," according to Maclean's writer John Demont—"the way experienced miners were undone by being buried hundreds of yards underground while other, unlikely leaders came to the fore." A Publishers Weekly critic, however, felt that Greene's narrative "comes up short" and that the author has not "effectively captured" the miner subculture. Library Journal contributor Sarah Jent had a different view, calling Last Man Out "a highly readable account" that will "hold the full attention of readers."
When asked by an Etude interviewer—as quoted on the author's Web site—to comment on her choice of writing narrative nonfiction rather than straight nonfiction, Greene replied, "I try to write books which carry historical truth, yet also manage to capture, in the way of great literature, something of human nature, something of landscape, something of the quality of light, some true bit of LIFE. So I would be happy if readers found that my books to some extent inform them and entertain them and touch them."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 29, 1996, Jim Auchmutey, "The Sleuth behind The Temple Bombing"; April 6, 2003, Teresa K. Weaver, "Unearthing Life's Larger Issues, Greene Exhaustively Researches Mine Collapse in Nova Scotia."
Entertainment Weekly, April 19, 1996, Suzanne Ruta, review of The Temple Bombing, p. 73.
Library Journal, April 1, 2003, Sarah Jent, review of Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster, p. 112.
Maclean's, May 19, 2003, John Demont, "Pits of Sorrow: Two Books Recall the Often Tragic Lives of the Men Who Worked in Nova Scotia's Coal Mines," p. 59.
Newsday, May 19, 1996, Wendy Smith, "Paying for Insight: Talking with Melissa Fay Greene."
People, June 10, 1996, Wayne Kalyn, review of The Temple Bombing, p. 40.
Publishers Weekly, August 16, 1991, review of Praying for Sheetrock, p. 40; February 12, 1996, review of The Temple Bombing, p. 66; June 3, 1996, review of The Temple Bombing (sound recording), p. 49; March 17, 2003, review of Last Man Out, p. 66.
Washington Monthly, July-August, 1996, J. Anthony Lukas, review of The Temple Bombing, p. 50.
Melissa Fay Greene Web Site,http://www.melissafaygreene.com/ (February 24, 2004).*