BOOK REVIEW / A sleeping giant in search of new shoes: 'Praying for Sheetrock' - Melissa Fay Greene: Secker & Warburg, 9.99

In June 1971, before the new Interstate-95 motorway was built, two trucks collided on the old Highway 17 where the traffic used to slam down through the coastal saltmarsh and pine-woods of McIntosh county, South Georgia, on its way to Florida.

One truck was full of shoes, and sheriff Tom Poppell benignly allowed the black people who had gathered silently around the smoking wreck to help themselves to box after box of good leather shoes, red, black and green shoes they could never have afforded by themselves, all wrapped in tissue paper.

'All day long under a sky like white coals,' writes Melissa Fay Greene, 'the High Sheriff stood spread-legged on the highway, directing traffic; the road crews swept and shovelled; and hundreds of local families quietly harvested shoes.' They thanked Sheriff Poppell for this licenced larceny, and the Sheriff, with a silent gesture of one hand, acknowledged their tribute.

It is with this telling image of the old South - a mixture of feudal power, poverty and lawlessness, still surviving seven years after the second great emancipation of 1964 - that Greene opens this masterly book. It is as tender and powerful as a great Russian novel, yet written in a style that sets the casual rhythms of contemporary speech against the vast, timeless landscape of coastal Georgia, 'one of Earth's rare moist and sunny places where life loves to experiment. Because it is flushed out twice a day by the systole of saltwater tide and diastole of alluvial tide, the marsh looks new, as if still wet from creation'.

Nature in south Georgia may love to experiment. The same has not been true of its white inhabitants since they arrived from the Scottish Highlands in the early 18th century and began to import slaves to cut down the timber for them, tap the turpentine and fish the shrimps off this steaming coast. By the 1970s, little had changed since slavery times.

When Sheriff Tom Poppell succeeded his father in 1948 and long after pine, turps and shrimping had given place, for the few thousand white inhabitants of the county, to the great new industry; fleecing the Yankee tourists. With sly cunning and prodigious imagination, they dreamed up new ways, or rather new variations on time-honoured ways, of prising dollars from the occupants of the shining river of trucks and sedans, Cadillacs and Chevvies, that poured through Darien, Georgia, hellbound for Miami. Some offered free come-on rolls at gambling games where seemingly naive yokels fixed the odds against a tourist winning at 1,700,000 to one. Others ran joints like the SS Truck Stop where, if you asked the scantily-clad waitress for a hamburger, she would come back to you, 'Honey, the only thing you gon' get here costs thirty-five dollars, and you get it in the back room'.

Sheriff Poppell kept control in McIntosh not with the whip and the gun, like the beer-gutted sheriffs of cliche, but by country cunning. He grew rich with the skim from robberies, illegal gambling, prostitution and narcotics, and there were dark stories of backwoods murder where his will was flouted. He courted the black vote with geniality and with shrewdly distributed favours. Unlike other white sheriffs, he made sure that every last black voted, and that they voted for him. Sheriff Tom, in fact, was one of the last unchallenged bosses in the South. Until, that is, the black community, the 'sleeping giant' as the white folks called it, Kraken-like awoke.

Melissa Fay Greene's unsentimental account of the black awakening starts slowly, as if nothing would ever change in McIntosh county. It turns into an authentic South Georgia tragedy. It is the story of how a black man, Thurnell Alston, of little education and great ability, rose from sweaty obscurity to become a county commissioner, not like the stammering old Uncle Toms Sheriff Poppell had patronised, but as the proud champion of a people so poor that when winter came they prayed for sheetrock - toughened plasterboard - to be delivered by the bounty of Highway 17, like Sheriff Poppell's shoes, to keep out the rain.

It was, with the sort of irony that Thomas Hardy would have relished, the highway that began the downslope in Thurnell Alston's life. His son Keith, the apple of his eye, crossed the road to buy sweets for his twin baby brother and sister. His attention wandered, he stepped into the stream of traffic, and was killed instantly. Alston's marriage never recovered. He started to drink, to take bribes, to front for the drug smugglers who had found a new use for the shrimp boats and the quiet coves of the saltmarsh. I will not spoil the magnificent denouement of this non-fiction novel by giving away the specific manner of Thurnell's discomfiture, but the book held me from the first page to the last.

The central narrative accelerates smoothly to a surprise tragicomic resolution. But this is not only the ironic story of a white sheriff and his black supplanter; not even the portrait of the people, half black, half white, of Darien in its endless pine-woods. In prose that is both sharp and elegiac, Melissa Fay Greene catches the pitch of a voice, the simmering heat and the tensions of human contact. But she also catches the essential unity of the human experience of this insidiously beautiful, treacherous land with its history that is both placid and bloodstained.

'Before the whites came, before the blacks, the Indian elderly must have sat, relishing in memory their fine moments, inwardly revelling, just as today, on high, small concrete balconies overlooking the Florida beach, American elderly people sit on foldout aluminium chairs and look to the horizon from their perches, while the ocean wind ruffles their hair.' Few writers as good as this come along in a generation, even in the South, with all the unfair advantage of having the South to write about; and not many of them achieve this high, even purr of controlled power in their very first book.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor