Saturday, May 9, 2015

"All Over but the Shoutin'": A Tribute to a Selfless Southern Momma

Sometimes books are like candy to read - sweet and a little indulgent.  Sometimes they are like an enticing snack - you can think of little else other than having more.  Sometimes they are like a fine dining cuisine - so refined and cultured that they make you sit up straight when you read them.  And then there's Rick Bragg's memoir "All Over but the Shoutin'" which to me was like a home cooked, heavy, stick to your ribs, Southern meal prepared lovingly by your mom.

My good friend recommended Bragg's book to me after I told her that "All the Light We Cannot See" was so well written that the writing almost made me cry.  She handed me Bragg's 1997 memoir and said, "The writing in this book is beautiful.  You have to read it." I knew after reading the prologue where Bragg explains why he wrote this book in the first place that I would love it.  He reasons, "This is not an important book.  It is only the story of a strong woman, a tortured man and three sons who lived hemmed in by thin cotton and ragged history in northeaster Alabama, in a time when blacks and whites found reason to hate each other and a whole lot of people who could not stand themselves." I was captivated and feel like I learned about the underbelly of Southern society - the poor whites who self destruct in their houses with no plumbing but plenty of alcohol, the people who work in the cotton fields and wear their shoes until their toes stick out of the ends, whose teeth rot and fall out because who has the money to pay for dental care?  And sometimes, there are people like Bragg who find their way out and even more importantly can illuminate what it was like to grow up in rural, northern Alabama and educate the world.

Bragg doesn't whine about his upbringing or his history.  He tells it honestly with all it's ugliness and torment. As he bravely tells about growing up with so little that often they wouldn't have food to eat, he pays close attention to his mother's perspective.  Her selflessness saved him and his brothers from his violent, drunken father, helped him find a sense of normalcy in the poverty and maybe even gave him the courage to get out.  Bragg eventually got a job writing for a local newspaper (he only got the job because the other person it was offered to decided to take a job at KFC instead), and went on to get a Harvard fellowship, and eventually win a Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times journalistic work.

At times the memoir is heartbreaking and beautiful simultaneously, but other times, I have to admit that I got lost in middle of the heavy Southern meal with all of the detail. I forged through the middle and when Bragg wrote about his journalistic work in New York City, Haiti and covering stories of human suffering, I reengaged.  I don't know what that says about me, but it seemed like he was reengaged at that point in the book as well.  He made keen observations about his motivations as a journalist reasoning that "You pour it all into your stories, as your fingers hover above the computer keyboard, but when you get up, when it is done, you block much of it out.  You have to feel for the people you write about or the words don't amount to much, but you learn to put it down." That is his gift - to attach to the humanistic aspect for the story, but then be able to detach from the suffering and move on to the next story.

My favorite part of the story was when he convinced his mother to accompany him to the Pulitzer Prize award celebration in New York City.  She had never traveled outside of Northern Alabama and her experiences just traveling to the city were touching.

This book ultimately pays homage to Bragg's mother who suffered but never complained.  Although he talks about all of his accomplishments in writing, his biggest accomplishment came when he was able to buy his mom a home with cash - a real house that she could love, a house that had all the modern amenities so she wouldn't have to struggle so much.

It's a fitting book to finish on Mother's Day weekend as we think about our own mothers - their struggles, the sacrifices they made to help us be who we are, and mostly who we are because of who they are.

Happy Mother's Day.

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