Every so often I read a book that reminds me of why I want to write. Pulitzer Prize winning news writer, Rick Bragg, wrote a memoir about growing up poor in the South, and how he escaped poverty by writing and storytelling and pure dumb luck. All Over but the Shoutin’ is Bragg’s tribute to his mother and his southern roots and his story of 20 years of writing for different papers.
Part I of the memoir is the story of his youth in Piedmont, Alabama and the very best of the writing. He tells of his father’s abuse and drinking and repeated abandonment; his mother’s hard work and how she always ate last to make sure her growing sons had plenty of meat. Of her picking cotton for hours and hours just to earn a few pennies. Of going hungry and being given corn by neighbors on the street—who were black—in an era when most black neighbors did not have enough to eat. His prose is so rich and so beautiful, I am afraid I cannot do it justice. It felt southern and very full of the bittersweet marrow of life, but ringed in hope and love and also, this cannot be said enough, rooted in exceptionally strong and vibrant storytelling.
Part II continues the tradition as Mr. Bragg leaves his home to follow his journalism career. He eschews love and marriage and family of his own to chase the story for a series of better and better papers until finally he reaches the holy grail of newspaper journalism: the New York Times. In each place he writes stories about the worst of our society, the homeless, the victims. He spends time in Haiti and is witness to the horrors of a society gone mad with cruelty and killing. Each tale he tells in this section is the story behind the story, what he saw and what it taught him or how it helped propel him forward and what he gave up to pursue his life.
As he tells these tales he remembers his mother and he makes a promise to himself about her, and he also works very hard to overcome his prejudice about who he is and whether he fits in. As his career progresses he finds he does not fit in anywhere. He is embarrassed to be at home because people don’t know him or understand what he is doing, but he also does not quite belong in the exalted corridors of the NYT with all the “fancy people.” It is a familiar theme expertly rendered.
The shortest part, the end, tied it all together. He is able to fulfill his promise to his mother (even as he doubts his motivation for fulfilling the promise). He wins a coveted Pulitzer Prize, and in a three Kleenex chapter takes his mother to the awards ceremony in Manhattan where she rides in her first elevator and gets her first room service.
Rick Bragg spoke in my town last night, I couldn’t go, but I understand he is an even better storyteller in person that he is in print. That would have been quite a show. He has several other memoirs and books in print, and I am not sure if I could read them. I can’t imagine he could top this one.