All Over but the Shoutin’ is perhaps Rick Bragg’s most well-known work, beginning a trilogy that, in its focus on one family in the early and mid-20th century, takes readers into the generally ignored territory of the poor white working class of the South. The book is a tribute to Bragg’s mother, Margaret Bragg, who was abandoned by her alcoholic husband and struggled to raise three boys on her own in unforgiving times, but also serves as a biography of Bragg – revealing how he became a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist despite his challenging upbringing. Bragg accredits his gift for storytelling to his many hours listening to family members tell stories; the oral tradition has always been strong in the South. That gift is on display early here, when he struggled with his father’s legacy, knowing he was a good man at some point who was broken by Korea and whiskey and could never quite find the way home again. Although All Over is replete with hardship and suffering – no more so than when his mother, struggling to make ends meet by picking cotton in the fields, is made redundant by the arrival of the machines, the story is flecked with humor and joy, too – culminating in Bragg’s being able to fulfill his lifelong dream, to buy his mother a home and place of her own.
Ava’s Man takes us back earlier, to Bragg’s maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum. Charlie appears briefly but memorably in All Over but the Shoutin’, as a hard-working man and a merry drinker who Bragg’s father compares unfavorably against. . Bragg never knew his grandfather Charlie; the man died the year he was born, but Charlie gave Margaret and his other girls a strength they needed to carry them through difficult days. Bragg couldn’t help but notice how powerfully Charlie’s memory affected his aunts, who would cry at the very mention of his name; such was their loss. Although he never found material wealth, through work and talent (at roofing and brewing moonshine) he made life for his wife and girls comfortable at times, and unlike many his love for ardent spirits never led him to jail or to abusive behavior. He was a happy drinker, a singer of songs, and when he quarreled with his wife it was because they both liked arguing with the other too much to give it up. Although his work as a carpenter had given him great, strong hands that could flatten a man in a single throw when they were used in anger, he was known for his gentleness — adopting a poor drifter who lived by the river, and taking joy in playing with his young grandchildren. He was no pushover, though, as many a revenuer learned — to their painful embarrassment.
In The Prince of Frogtown, Bragg returns to his father, Charles Bragg, attempting to find the man he was despite the wreck he became — a story told while Bragg also recounts his own experience with sudden fatherhood, having become a stepfather to a young boy. The book grew out of one of Bragg’s friends’ observation that he would never be able to rest until he’d tackled his father’s legacy square on. Bragg here focuses on the mill village that offered so many of his family a way out of poverty, as treacherous as it was. It was a society saturated with whiskey, violence, and cotton fiber; Charles sought to escape the fate being trapped into mill work, hoping for a career in the Marines, but between the war and a bad auto accident, he came home a different man — one who needed the whiskey to numb the pain, not just to have a good time. Although the track of this story will be familiar to those who have read Bragg’s other works , we get a much fuller idea of the Boy who was Bragg’s dad — a short but feisty boy who was the leader of his own pack, who took pride in his juvenile accomplishments and who was later frustrated by his lack of progress as a man. The story tends toward sadness, given Charles’ fate as a suicide eaten up with liver damage and tuberculosis, but it’s replete with memorable characters and funny stories.
These books are a tribute to not only Bragg’s family, but all the poor but proud southern workingmen forgotten by the history books, capturing their — our — unique culture and often chaotic history. The writing is superb, frankly, drawing the reader into these lives and making the emotions that drove them all the more real when life takes a comic — or tragic — turn. I can only admire Bragg for the difficulty undertaken in trying to face the sorrow and pain in his family history — and admire, too, his ability to take the oral history of his elders and turn it into three narratives that are each as spell-binding as the other. Ava’s Man remains my favorite among these, largely for the near folk-hero character of Charlie Bundum.