In Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene, what are some of the similarities and differences between Thurnell Alston and Sheriff Poppell?
Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock: A Work of Nonfiction tells the story of McIntosh County, a small, isolated Georgia town, where, in the 1970s, the civil rights movement had bypassed entirely. Despite the desegregation achievements that were sweeping across the nation in the 1970s, McIntosh County was heavily stratified by race, with the white sheriff presiding over all social, ethical, and legal affairs. The story is essentially about two men: Thurnell Alston, a black man who took on the white hierarchy of McIntosh County, and Tom Poppell, the white sheriff who ruled over the community.
First and foremost, both men are strong, charismatic characters who are steadfast in their beliefs and use their power to influence those around them. Thurnell Alston was a disabled boilermaker, but he was not afraid to voice his opinions or stand up for what he thought to be right. He states, “There’s a lot of people have been intimidated in McIntosh, but there was no fear of things for me. I would tell it the way I see it. Regardless of who they are, I mean they could kill me for it, because I’m going to say it anyway” (Greene 54). Similarly, the narrator describes Sheriff Poppell as a resolute and affecting man: “In modern times Sheriff Poppell was the neighborhood headman who exerted his will and shaped the county, and the people acquiesced as people do when they are not, themselves, hungry for power and when they are permitted to make a living far from the rumpus” (Greene 13). Sheriff Poppell uses his uncontested control to have his way in the community, and, much like Alston, Poppell rises up from a body of people who are afraid to voice their opinions or simply do not care to challenge the existing status quo.
Another similarity between Alston and Poppell is the fact that both men become involved in criminal activity despite their political standings. From the beginning, Poppell is introduced as a corrupt official who blatantly denies equal rights to African Americans and pulls the cars of black people over, claiming it to be a routine search, but instead stealing their money and giving it to his officers. Poppell also loots crashed or broken-down trucks unfortunate enough to cross his county line: “If the truck drivers had realized their trucks had crashed in McIntosh County, Georgia (431 miles of swamp, marsh, and forest: population 7,000) they would have known—that it was nearing time for a little redistribution of wealth” (Greene 3). Yet, while Poppell enters the story as a known corrupted official, Alston’s corruption arrives later in the story when he becomes accused of drug trafficking: “Thurnell Alston was acquitted on the two charges alleging that he possessed, with intent to distribute, cocaine. But he was convicted of conspiring to possess, with intent to distribute, cocaine; and two counts of using a telephone to facilitate a deal” (Green 321). While Alston repeatedly denies the charges, he is sentenced to six-and-a-half years. This similarity highlights how political standings can facilitate corruption.
While both men appear powerful and unyielding at the surface, they do possess sympathy and compassion. For example, Poppell looks the other way when poor black families pillage a wrecked semi-truck for shoes: “All day long under a sky like white coals the High Sheriff stood spread-legged on the highway, directing traffic; the road crews swept and shoveled; and hundreds of local families quietly harvest shoes” (Green 4). Similarly, Greene makes it a point to devote a considerable portion of the story to Alston’s life as a father to develop his compassionate and loving side. She states, “Four sons were born to her and Thurnell: Thun, Anthony, LeVan, and Keith; and four foster children were taken in by them. Chickens in the backyard, dogs all around, mother-in-law and sisters-in-law and brothers and aunts in cabins and trailers in the pine woods about the house” (Green 48). This description characterizes Alston as a caring, family man, and it is important because it arrives in conjunction with his drug conspiracy accusations, thus presenting him as a complex character, much like Sheriff Poppell.
There are several differences between Thurnell Alston and Sheriff Poppell. First, both men are fighting on opposite sides: Thurnell Alston is advocating race equality while Poppell desperately clings to the status quo of white hierarchy. Second, Sheriff Poppell is deeply rooted in historical precedent—he inherited his post from his father and rules the community “much as they had since emancipation” (Greene 23). On the other hand, Thurnell Alston is invested in change and progress: “Thurnell had something to give the black county again, and the immediate future seemed full of novelty and progress” (Green 299). Finally, Thurnell Alston lacks the oratory skills often associated with an effective leader, while Sheriff Poppell is described as charismatic and charming. Alston talks with a stammer in a high-pitched voice, and “he rarely matched words to thought very happily. In fact, in an inverse relationship, the more he desired to express something of deep importance to himself, the more tongue-tied he became” (Greene 53). Conversely, Sheriff Poppell “had a lot of charisma . . . He would handle everything just as cool and brilliant, just country brilliances is all I know how to describe it” (Green 5). The difference in the delivery of both men is important because it characterizes their methods for change. Whereas Alston fights against tradition and tries to convince the community that change is needed, Poppell placates any concerns with smooth talking and eloquent speeches.