October 26, 2006


The Temple Bombing. By Melissa Fay Greene. Da Capo. $15.95.

Praying for Sheetrock. By Melissa Fay Greene. Da Capo. $15.95.

Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake. By Trevor Dann. Da Capo. $16.95.

     How many times must we go back to the same scenes, the same places, the same stories?  It depends, of course, on both the story and the storyteller.  Some events are so indelibly imprinted on some groups’ and individuals’ consciousness – the Holocaust on Jews, for example – that it seems inevitable for people from those groups to return to those occurrences again and again, trying to make sense of them and understand why they occurred and what they meant, even many decades afterwards.

     A similar sense of inevitable return pervades Melissa Fay Greene’s books about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and its aftermath.  The Temple Bombing (originally published in 1996) focuses on 1958, Praying for Sheetrock (originally published in 1991) on what happened after the struggles of the 1960s.  These new editions show that both books are heartfelt and well written, both explore an important era in American history – and both, like the umpteen books still being written about the Holocaust, raise two unsettling issues: how much discussion of an era is enough, and how much relevance the books’ subjects have to people for whom the stories are only dim entries in history texts.

     Greene certainly does an excellent job of humanizing large-scale events. The Temple Bombing focuses on the dynamiting of Atlanta’s oldest and richest synagogue on October 12, 1958, by white supremacists and unreconstructed segregationists – whose hatred was inflamed after Rabbi Jacob Rothschild spoke out in public to defend the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that “separate but equal is inherently unequal.”  On the grand scale, this is a story of how Jews and African Americans became partners in the civil rights movement, and of how court cases were tried and mistried at a time of major social upheaval.  On a smaller scale, it is the story of Rothschild himself, his supporters and opponents, his faith and his doubt.  Similarly, Praying for Sheetrock is the story of McIntosh County, Georgia, in the 1970s, when a corrupt old-style sheriff and his cronies largely ignored the civil rights movement and ruled with impunity – until an unemployed black man named Thurnell Alston stood up to them.  Again, the larger issues are played out on one level while the smaller personal stories of Alston, Sheriff Tom Popell and various individuals on both sides are sensitively explored.  There is no question that the subjects of both these lengthy books (900 pages between them) are of immense importance to Greene, and that she spins her stories eloquently.  There is, however, a question of whether the books reach out to anyone not already imbued with Greene’s own spirit and temperament – and whether that matters.

     There is a somewhat analogous question about Darker Than the Deepest Sea, Trevor Dann’s thorough biography of a moderately popular musician who, like many others in the business, died of a drug overdose when very young.  This is the story of Nick Drake (1948-1974), who made only three albums and who has attained more fame posthumously than during his life.  The quality of that fame is arguable – the title track of one Drake album became a Volkswagen commercial’s soundtrack – and so are the qualities of Drake and his music.  Dann, a British music executive, is clearly knowledgeable about the field, and his research is impressive.  We learn of Drake’s well-to-do upbringing, his personal relationships, his professional ones (notably with producer Joe Boyd), and his brief performance for none other than the Rolling Stones.  We have actually learned much of this before – this is the second biography of Drake, and the better of the two.  But how many more doctors talking about a musician’s depression do readers want to hear?  How many more interviews with university tutors are needed to explain a part of a young man’s life?  Dann sheds a great deal of light on his subject – but the question remains: does Drake have a large enough fan base to justify this book, or is it supposed to reach out in some way to people who know little or nothing about its 30-years-gone subject?

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