Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
Rick Bragg can spin a charming, compelling story about coleslaw—that’s the range of this man’s creativity and talent, which I’ve been appreciating since reading (savoring) his hauntingly beautiful memoir about growing up hard, fast and poor in Alabama, All Over But The Shouting (Pantheon 1997). I wasn’t the only one who appreciated All Over But The Shouting, as it was a national bestseller and New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
But here, what I want to tell you about is Bragg’s newest book, My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South (Oxmoor House 2015). This is a collection of essays, many of which previously appeared in Southern Living magazine, about topics as far flung as raw oysters, Bear Bryant, tornadoes, the BP oil spill, roses, old aunts, mules (especially dead ones), home repairs, family—and yes, coleslaw. My Southern Journey is a book to own, cherish, and loan out only to those rare folks who can be trusted to actually return a book, and without coffee stains or dog-earned pages. And my Yankee husband, who read and enjoyed My Southern Journey, assures me one does not need to be from Alabama or the South to appreciate this book.
Bragg, who won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and is currently on the faculty at The University of Alabama, is a master storyteller with a rare gift for the perfect phrase. He has a well-developed talent for awakening senses and emotions that transport a reader well past the bare bones of the essay. I hadn’t even finished reading his introduction, “South Toward Home,” before I was carried back decades to sitting beside my great aunt in a sweltering church in rural Alabama as she cooled me with a cardboard fan with Jesus on one side and a funeral home ad on the other. Bragg wrote: “I love…the hard-rock preachers in their Conway Twitty sideburns who fling scripture with the force of a flying horseshoe at congregations who all but levitate in the grasp of the Holy Ghost, and every old woman’s purse in every pew smells like a fresh stick of Juicy Fruit.”
Sure enough, my great aunt’s purse—and my grandmother’s—all smelled like a fresh stick of Juicy Fruit. So the sweet, rich aromas in that introductory sentence took me right back home to my own native Alabama and had me chasing my Yankee husband around to tell him my tales of childhood in the red clay and rich loam of the Alabama black-belt—all because Rick Bragg collected his essays into a book that elicited my memories “with the force of a flying horseshoe.”
Though poignantcy might be Bragg’s better suit, he can write with delightful humor as he did in his essay about gluing himself to the wall in a deserted house. No, I won’t spoil the plot about the why and wherefores of that tale, but I will say it made me laugh out loud. In fact, Bragg is so good, he can actually be funny and angry at the same time as in his essays “Bad Slaw” and “The Plane Truth.” So don’t be serving that man any bad coleslaw with “tang,” and don’t expect him to be chipper on a long, cramped plane ride “after connections in Miami and I think Saskatchewan.”
Humor is good, and it’s a way, as all of us know, of whistling past the graveyard. But anger, when it is righteous and well-wrought, has a power all of its own in great writing, and Bragg shines with anger, tempered with pathos, when he writes of the BP oil spill in “The Lost Gulf.” In his words:
In one awful moment, an oil company accomplished what a drumbeat of hurricanes, pollution, and insane overdevelopment had been unable to do. It threatened the sanctity of the Gulf in a way most of us could not even imagine, sending a stain from horizon to horizon across the surface, and giant plumes of oil, miles long, and miles deep, drifting through its depth.
No book of essays about Alabama written by a man of Bragg’s generation could be truly complete without something about Bear Bryant. And Bragg does not disappoint. It might be hard for someone who is not from Alabama to fully understand what Bear Bryant meant to the people of that state. I won’t even try because Bragg has done it already in “Down Here” and “For the Love of the Game” and with special power in “Nick of Time.” After tracing a history and providing a thoughtful analysis about Southerners and football in “Nick of Time,” Bragg notes:
After a quarter century of dominance Bryant retired after the 1982 season with a 21-15 win over Illinois at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, in the freezing cold. Less than a month later he was dead, as if his life was hard-wired to the game. One paper sent reporters to interview the grave digger, and on Bryant’s burial day people stood on the overpasses and the roadside, hands over their hearts, to watch a hearse take away one of the best parts of their history.
There is no denying the nostalgic tone in his essays—especially when he writes about his aunts (“The Roses of Fairhope”), his mother (“Cowboys Are Her Weakness,” “Saving Face,” and “Take Your Medicine, Boy”), his grandfather (“Grandpa Was a Carpenter”) and in a particularly tender essay, “Why I Write About Home.” As he says:
I write about home so I can be certain that someone will….Home is not a thing of position, or standing….It is where the men live who know how to fix their own damn water pump, where the women watch their soap operas on the VCR because they will be at work at mid-day. It is where the churches are small, and the houses, too.
Bragg has given me—and all his readers—a gift. What I take away from My Southern Journey is sweet, and tender, and evocative—and yes, just a tiny bit sentimental but in a good, strong way. Rick Bragg makes me want to go home again.
Bragg promises us this: “I will write and write as long as somebody, anybody, wants me to, till we remind one more heartbroken ol’ boy of his grandfather, or educate one more pampered Yankee on the people of the pines.”
Dear Rick Bragg, I want to go on record as saying: I’m going to hold you to that promise. Keep writing, sir.