Book Help Web


Monday, October 30, 2006

Rick Bragg

Cyndi Allison, one of the Book Help Web contributors and the publisher of Cooking Help Web, tells me her favorite author is Rick Bragg. She's a huge fan of his books and met him once at a book signing where she was able to send him home with a spate more food than what he was served at the luncheon.

Rick Bragg is a former New York Times reporter who has written a series of books. I'm pleased to be able to share several reviews of those books with you.

All Over But the Shoutin is a memoir that tells Bragg's own story:

If you really want a glimpse across the poverty line, then pick up Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin'. This is one of the few books to come out of the "poor white trash" community, and it is raw, honest, and full of beautiful anecdotes, descriptions, and human feelings.

Though many books have been written and printed from the socially deprived black community standpoint, "white poverty" tends to be pushed to the back stove eye and basically considered to be a oxymoronic combination of words (white and poor). Now, certainly the black community is hit hardest with poverty in the U.S. in terms of percentages, but the raw numbers with a dominant white population group (close 80 percent) put persons-of-non-color at the top of the welfare roles as far as overall dependence on the system. I have a hard time convincing my students that the average welfare mom is white, but that is how it goes.


This is one of the all-time best books I've read and especially coming from an author out of the south and from a poor background. While it may not ring true with some readers, those would be readers from other areas of the country. It might be hard to picture the things that Bragg talks about, but I could feel every word of this book. If you are southern and particularly from the lower side of the poverty line, then I would say that you really need to read this book and celebrate the expression of a culture that has long been silent. If we don't give "voice" to all, then we don't really grow as a country. Even if you can't imagine this lifestyle, read the book and consider that some people in the US life very different from the TV world that we are sold on Time-Warner. It would be nice to think that poverty is just not having the latest Nike tennis shoes, but it does go much deeper and it cuts across all color lines.

His next book, Ava's Man, tells the story of his grandparents:

Rick Bragg can spin a tale. He makes you see the fleas on a coonhound and feel itchy to boot. Although he's not old enough to be sitting on the front porch with all the kids gathered round, he is the master when it comes to weaving a story that will keep you begging for more.

Bragg grew up dirt poor, and then went on to write for major US newspapers and won a Pulitzer Prize for his story about the black lady who saved all her money and then donated it for a scholarship. He also covered the Susan Smith news when she drowned her kids in a car and said a black man did it.

Ava's Man is Bragg's second family book. The first is All Over But the Shoutin' which is the story of Bragg's life growing up with his mom and brothers. Ava's Man drops back and picks up the grandparents on his mothers side. Since his dad was pretty much trash, the mom side of the family has more impact. If you grew up in a single parent household where one family provided the support, then you'll know that the bonding goes the way of the family there and weathering the good and bad times.

Ava's Man is about Charlie who is Bragg's grandfather. Of course, Ava is the grandmother. She does get a lot of talk time in the book, but she plays second fiddle to Charlie who died before Rick Bragg was born. This is not really unusual in southern lore. The men are what legends are made of while the women pretty much made sure everyone ate and got raised up.

Our final Rick Bragg review is a memoir--but not of his family. He tells the story of Jessica Lynch in I am a Soldier Too:

Rick Bragg wrote I Am a Soldier, Too — The Jessica Lynch Story. He is one of my favorite writers of all times, and he comes from a rural background similar to Jessica's. I can't think of anyone more suited to dig in and find out the heart of a story and especially one with small town roots. It wouldn't have mattered what project Bragg worked on, I would have bought the book, but I was excited that he selected this story to tell.

This story is not just a war tale. It drops back and let's the reader see Jessica as the rather prissy kid who loved to paint her nails and who made County Fair Queen. It talks about her dream to become a kindergarten teacher and talks about how she saw the military as a way to earn money to get a chance to do more than marry and raise kids. This is the reality for lots of rural boys and girls, and the book talks about the area and about the people who end up in the armed forces, because that's really the only way they can get out and travel and get some education.

Jessica did not sign up to be a Green Beret. She was a clerk and would hand out supplies like toilet paper and pens. Going to a war zone was a "stretch" for an 18-year-old who weighed 100 pounds. But, she shouldn't have seen any hand-to-hand combat. The person in charge missed a turn and landed the group in the middle of hostile territory where this group of behind-the-scenes personnel were faced with bullets flying and enemy soldiers stomping them to death. Very few made it out alive. Jessica is one who did live to tell the story, and the media loved the way she looked and sounded in print and on the little screen. She became the voice of this moment in history.


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