Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Author Spotlight: Rick Bragg

By Jeff Burns

Recently, the world of southern literature lost an icon when novelist Pat Conroy died.  Fortunately, there are others to pick up that banner, and I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite southern writers, Rick Bragg.  Bragg is a Pulitzer prize winning journalist and author who grew up in northeastern Alabama and has lived all over the South.  He is not a historian, but many of his books and articles are memoirs, stories of his family, his experiences, and his travels in the South. He is keenly perceptive and his stories are the stories of the South in the last half of the 20th century.  He is a master storyteller, and his writing is entertaining and eloquent.  It resonates for me because I recognize many elements of his stories as similar to my family background, even though I grew up in small-town southeast Georgia. He is insightful and very humorous.  His stories are about the best of people, even when situations are not the best.

I’m currently listening to his latest, My Southern Journey: True Stories From the Heart of the South, a collection of essays written over a decade.  A plus is that Bragg reads the audiobook version himself, and that adds a whole new level of enjoyment.  The introduction hooked me from the start; it’s one of the finest pieces of writing about the South that I’ve ever read. 

I was first introduced to Bragg’s work by All Over But the Shoutin, published in 1998.  It is an inspiring story about growing up dirt-poor with an alcoholic father and a mother who worked hard in cotton fields and mills of Alabama to raise her sons and keep her family together. He followed up in 2002 with the story of his grandfather, Ava’s Man, the story of a moonshiner and hustler of the Great Depression.

The Prince of Frogtown was written for Bragg’s stepson, and it’s a memoir of his adolescence and especially his relationship with his father. It fits nicely as the third book of a trilogy, with Ava and Shoutin. The Most They Ever Had is a broader story but still set in his hometown of Jacksonville, Alabama. It’s the story of the community that was centered around the cotton mill that dominated the town for over a century. As the mill closes down, Bragg tells its story through in-depth profiles of the employees and families who worked there over the years.  It’s a fascinating story that is pretty much the same story as mill towns and factory towns across the country.  For a change of pace, I highly recommend Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Bragg’s as-told-to biography of one of the greatest of rock and roll legends.  Bragg made a real connection with Lewis and allows him to truly tell his own incredible story.

Southerner or not, if you love great storytelling and great writing, I think you’ll love Rick Bragg’s works.

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