By GLENDA CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
It is truly bad form to begin a story about someone else with a reference to yourself.
It just isn’t done. Particularly when the person you are writing about is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose expertise with the written word is undisputed in newsrooms and publishing houses across the country. Especially when that person will be a guest in your home town and might conceivably, at some point, read what you have written about him.
But I am breaking all the rules and telling you, up front, that when my computer screen revealed an email from Rick Bragg — son of the good red earth in Possum Trot, Ala., and a master wordsmith willing to make himself available for an interview — I hugged myself and whooped for joy.
Simply put, this poet who writes in prose makes me eternally grateful Mrs. Addie Lou Harper taught me to read. He speaks with the voice of people I’ve known all my life, because he’s known the same people. He tells their stories in a flow and rhythm that is so close to music my hands and feet will scarcely stay still.
He stirs up songs in my heart.
Bragg teaches writing at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He will be the speaker at the Feb. 3 Union City Rotary Club Distinguished Speaker banquet.
Although he began his career and earned his prizes as a newspaper man, it is his books that have made folks want to invite him over for Sunday dinner, just for the joy of hearing him orchestrate more tales.
He honored his family’s stories in “All Over but the Shoutin’,” “Ava’s Man” and “The Prince of Frogtown.” He made sure others had their own voice in “I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story,” “Somebody Told Me: The Newspaper Stories of Rick Bragg” and “The Most They Ever Had.”
Two more books are working their way through his heart and brain these days.
Beginning his career as a sports writer at The Jacksonville News in Alabama, Bragg went on to scribe for newspapers from one coast to the other. He lived and worked in Los Angeles and New York, in Boston and Miami and points in between.
He earned his reputation by telling the hard stories. Not the sterile number of executions committed in war-torn Haiti or the estimator-reckoned cost per square foot of destruction visited by a tornado on Goshen Church in Piedmont, Ala., the town where he was born.
Bragg took his readers, instead, to a hell-hole that didn’t have to be in the Caribbean, where “little girls with dead eyes hold your hands and whisper about fathers who were shot in the back of the head by grinning soldiers.”
He held the pen steady while a grieving mother who had seen the life sucked from her 4-year-old by a whirlwind wrote about faith that stared prostrating grief in the face but refused to bow down.
He knew devastation and destruction inside and out. Or so he thought.
He lived for the business of recording their human toll. Or so it seemed.
“I wrote about Haiti and disaster and bombings … and it’s important to write about loss and not in clichés, but the truth is, you think you know half-way what you are doing while you are doing it, but when you look back … well, I’m honored to have gotten to do it, but I don’t want to anymore.”
It’s a positively-positioned sentiment, but circumstances shade his commitment to it.
“Now I want to write about going to New Orleans and finding the perfect po-boy. I don’t want to write sad anymore, but when Katrina drowned New Orleans, I wanted to write something. When British Petroleum fouled the Gulf and threatened one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever known, I wanted to write a love story about the Gulf and shake my fist at BP. When a tornado came through Tuscaloosa, I wanted to write about my neighborhood and the guy who went up on my roof and tapped down shingles, just because he said they looked a little loose. I guess you’ll always write about those things.”
The other thing Rick Bragg writes about with intimate intensity is family.
“The stories that originate in my mama’s living room are the happiest,” he says.
The truth is, though, some of the saddest stories were birthed there, too.
He flips a coin to determine which ones to record, only to have it come down balanced, precariously, on it edge. There is clearly no choice for an honest man, then, but to tell them both.
So he introduces people to his mama. His brothers. His grandparents. His aunts. His uncles. His cousins.
And to his father.
It is not always — not anywhere close to always, not nearly enough near to always — a pretty picture. Viewed from a certain perspective, therefore, it is the perfect story for Rick Bragg to write.
He begins his family’s history in the middle, with the narrative of his parents: Charles Bragg, a veteran of Korea who couldn’t stop fighting his private war and too often launched devastating offensives against his own kin; and Margaret Bundrum Bragg, a teen-age beauty whose heart continues so, even as the years and the fears have blurred the finer external lines.
Marine Bragg had seen the dead “wave from the ditches in Korea” where their ice-numbed bodies were held captive “half in, and out of the frozen mud.” That image surely played some part in his future and so shaped the lives of his family. The mother of that veteran’s children — four boys, with one laid too quickly in an impossibly small and unnamed grave — had practiced sacrificial living for the sake of her sons. She lent her sadness to every story her famous boy wrote. But more importantly, she offered that second-born a precious gift. “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 shell that carries it,” he wrote.
“All Over …” is not all a sad book, although it chronicles some sad stories. It is a hope-full book in that it captures a fineness of spirit, a courageousness of heart and a commitment to the things that truly matter and so make the sad times bearable.
It came to be written because Ava Bundrum, Bragg’s maternal grandmother, died.
Ava’s own story has her sharing billing with her man, Charlie, in the second book of the trilogy. They were “people of the pines” in northeast Alabama, given to music and some whiskey making on the side and a firm grip on family.
The final volume comes forward again and lays hold on Frogtown’s Prince, Charles Bragg, once more. This time the approach is, if not gentler, more generous.
Bragg will, most likely, make reference to all of these and more when he visits this area for three speaking engagements in February. Added to the two visits to Union City will be time spent at the University of Tennessee at Martin.
But it is his first book that students will be reading between now and then and that adults will be poring over first, have they not already done so.
And even if “All Over …” is already a treasured chapter in their reading history, it is a safe bet it will be revisited between now and then. The story line may be so familiar it needs no repetition. But the melody that moves it along — soft as an Alabama May midnight in some places and jagged as Louisiana cracked oyster shells in others — begs to be heard over and over.
“One of the best men I have ever known told me once that to tell a story right you have to lean the words against each other so that they don’t all fall down,” Bragg says in his first book.
All of his remain upright.
Mrs. Caudle may be contacted at glendacaudle @ucmessenger.com.
Published in The Messenger 10.27.11