Title: All Over but the Shoutin’
Author: Rick Bragg
Publisher: Random House
Length: 329 pp.
Synopsis: This book might be described as a memoir; it might also be described as a man’s beatification of his mother. Rick Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote this book as a way of paying homage to his “poor white trash” east Alabama roots. Raised the son of an alcoholic, absentee father by a mother whose “sadness is in every story [he] writes” (xx), Rick Bragg recounts his evolution from a poor boy who, after realizing the possibility of his being accused of a real-life crime simply because he is poor, goes straight to enroll in college to gain the power that his mother never had–“the power to stop things from being done to you” (121). His trajectory was then set: from work on the college newspaper, to the small-town Anniston Star, and eventually, to the New York Times. Obviously, Rick Bragg has talent on his side. He might also say that he has stubborness on his side. He recounts some of the stories he has covered, from political unrest in Haiti to the murder of two small boys in South Carolina by their own mother, starstruck with attention from her boss’ son. Somehow, he manages to see every story through the lens of his own experiences. In the end, though, this book is all about his mother. He explains it like this: “. . . of all the lessons my mother tried to teach me, the most important was that every life deserves a certain amount of dignity, no matter how poor or damaged the shall that it carries” (xxi).
My Thoughts: Sometimes I just had to put this book down. I found the emotion in it so raw, the feelings it evoked in me so painful at times, that I just couldn’t keep reading it. I was, however, inexplicably drawn back to it. Rick Bragg does not write my story, but he does indeed write the story of many people I know. I am one generation removed from the “poor white trash” that he writes about. I can be at home in the same culture he grew up in. Some of his description are so real to me that I think I know these people, but I don’t. My parents do, though. Many men from my father’s generation could identify with Rick’s description of his older brother:
All I had to do was look across the Formica-topped kitchen table to my brother Sam, to see my future. At thirteen, he had done a man’s job, shoveling coal, pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with rocks, mucking out hog pens, loading boxcars at Dixie Clay with an endless line of fifty-pound bags of clay and lime. Some nights he would go to sleep sitting in that hard-backed chair, and Momma would lead him to bed. The work was his birthright. It was what he got instead of a Mustang. (99)
Bragg even writes about his fear that he, too, will have a predilection to alcohol. He describes his one night in a Miami hotel room, memories of the bloodshed in Haiti having preempted his sleep, in this way:
I sought distraction, if nothing else, in the mini bar [. . .] I reached in and got a baby bottle of Wild Turkey, cracked it open and poured it in a water glass. I distinctly remember raising it to my lips, and the smell, like smoke and brown sugar and something stronger, The Spirit in it. And I gagged. I poured it into the sink and rinsed the glass. (156)
Of course, I found the parts about his mother the most compelling, and who wouldn’t? She is the woman who persevered through so many hardships with no real goal in mind for herself; she just had to keep going for her children.
Rick Bragg has written a book that moved me in so many ways. After reading it, I understood why journalists are often thought (and in fact, are) so cynical. I appreciate this book for its depiction of a part of the South that I do not know personally, but realize that is a part of my family’s history in the not-so-distant past. The only part I do not think he portrayed accurately is religion in the Bible Belt, but I understand that he only writes about it as an outsider, not an actual participant. This book left me with a feeling of heaviness, but I think it is a worthwhile read. I do not choose to spend my time with people who use as much profanity as Bragg uses throughout this book, but despite that, I’m still glad I read it.