Friday, March 06, 2009

The Prince of Frogtown: A Book Review

Sometime soon, I'll write something about the Yucatan and post pictures, but first, let me tell you about a great book... I know Bragg got in some trouble as a journalist, when he was working for the New York Times... Maybe he was a bit like Mark Twain and couldn't let a good story get in the way of the truth. This book will have you laughing and crying! As I listened to this book and did not have it in written form in front of me, some of the quotes may not be exact.
Rick Bragg, The Prince of Frogtown (Random House Audio, 2008) 7 hours 59 minutes.

Frogtown was the name of a Jacksonville, Alabama working class neighborhood where Rick Bragg’s father grew up. In this third in a trilogy on his family, Bragg seeks to understand his abusive and alcoholic father. Although he’s never able to redeem him, Bragg interviews relatives and friends of his deceased father in an attempt to learn more about the man. With chapters that jump back and forth, Bragg tells his father’s story (and some of his own) as well as inserting his own battles with helping raise a step-son. The methodology works surprisingly well, probably because Bragg refers to his step-son as “the boy” and his wife as “the woman,” which keeps the primary focus on the story of his dad and family. Instead of learning the details about Bragg’s current family, we learn about his father and the family he grew in as well as a bit about how about how fathers relate to sons and also about how things have changed in the rural South. Listening to the author read, in audio version of the book, provides an additional treat as we hear Bragg’s soft southern voice.

Bragg begins telling about a family gathering at a spring, a special place where “a boy, a genuine boy, can have no real fun with so many Presbyterians puttering around and so many mammas in one tight place.” I almost gave the book up right then and there, with his digs about Presbyterians. But Bragg is an equal rights offender and before he was done writing, he’d poked fun of the Methodists and Baptists and most other religious groups of the South. His description of the men who’d gathered there is especially telling:

“Some were saved, some backsliders and some yet unaffiliated, but even the men that walked in the holy of holies didn’t preach to the others out of respect—if you went to work and fed your babies, you were already half way home. So they spoke of the secular, of the secrets of fuel injection and how to put on brake shoes.”

At the time of the described event, Charles, Rick’s father, stood among such men, but his standing there wouldn’t last long. Charles had killed a man in Korea, holding his head under water till he drowns, an event that earned him the right to a drink. But he became a drunk. However, before that, he was the man who would bring the girl who’d become Rick’s mother roses (which he picked from someone else’s yard). He courted her in his shinny car, which always looked good even though it burnt so much oil that he’d just get a bucket-full of spent oil from the service station and pour it into the engine. Looks matter more than performance. As a Marine, he wooed her with his daily letters. They got married and she began having babies, and he drank more and more and the abuse got worse and worse and one day his mother had enough.

In telling the story of his father, Bragg also tells the story of the region. He’s descended from folks who fought with Andy Jackson in his campaign to clear out the Indians, yet most of them are a 1/8 or a 1/16th Indian. They were so poor they couldn’t even afford to buy the land at a government auction after Jackson’s sent the native tribes west on the Trail of Tears. Then along came the “rich man’s war” and the sharecroppers marched off into “one of the true oddities in Southern history—to fight for a way of life that was closed off to them.” Bragg notes that these men had as much “war whoop” as “Rebel yell” in them. “It was the fight, not the cause…” Racism ensured after the war as poor whites and blacks struggled over meager resources. Then along came the mills. The mill meant salvation to the hard working farmers and sharecroppers of the region. “The cost would be terrible, but it would be salvation just the same.” Yet Charles Bragg, unlike his family, knew better than to go into the mill. As a child, seeing a one-armed man, Rick asked his mamma if it was the war. “No,” she said, “the mill.” This man had been the best guitar picker around and had been invited to Nashville, but couldn’t go for if he laid out a day, he’d be fired. Rick recalls being told that “everything he needed to know about the mill could be found in that empty sleeve.” Agreeing, he notes there is “something wrong with a place that keeps a part of you after quittin’ time.”

One of the most moving parts of the book is where Rick interviews family members and friends to learn about his dad. His dad’s best friend, Jack, tells about how Charles called him from the TB sanatorium. He wanted his friend to “bust him out,” but Jack said he couldn’t do it, that he’d be arrested. In telling the story, three decades after Charles’ death, Jack’s heart was still aching. Recalling the last time he’d seen his dad, right before his death, Rick remembers him looking like a “burned up house.” Charles Bragg died in the winter of ’75. Rick was in High School. Charles had asked not to be buried in a tie, but the undertaker dressed him up in one anyway, a clip-on. Right before they closed the casket, Charles’ mother pulled the tie off, saying it was the last thing she could do for her son…

As the book continues, Bragg tells about his mother and the house he brought for her and how she and his younger brother lives. His younger brother, who never knew his dad, has followed his ways and has been in prison, but Rick and his mom now hopes he’s beat it. Flowers grow everywhere his mom walks on her land, but there’s not a single rose.

I enjoyed the storytelling in this book. Rick Bragg has a wonderful way of painting pictures and telling stories with words. Although there seemed to be a few “extra parts” in the book (like a long ending that took us through his brother’s release from prison), I enjoyed listening to it so much that I brought a paperback copy of Ava’s Man and read it while flying back from Mexico. I recommend both books.
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.


  1. Apparently, he has a rich history to draw from. Do you have to read the first 2 books to make sense of this one?

  2. This sure sounds interesting, so I've put a request to the local library for a copy.

    Btw, I happened to be at an Ecumenical Movement event the other day and I've to say all the Presbyterians puttering around there were not fun people. They were all gray and serious. Not surprisingly, a Lutheran Bishop stood up among the serious Presbyterians; and he even joked that Lutherans are basically ex-Europeans who want to be left alone in this new country. That's really funny.

  3. I've always found it interesting that the tribes of the Indian Territories (Oklahoma>, i.e. Cherokee, Choctaw, etc. fought for the South in the war. In fact, there was a Cherokee Brigadier General as well as numerous officers in the regular Confederate army.

    History is interesting, especially when tied to one's own past.


  4. Kenju, I read the last book first, the middle book second--you could say I'm just backwards

    Mother Hen, We're not all gray and serious! I hope you enjoy the book

    Randall, one day I'd love to write a book about my family and where I grew up that ties in the history.

  5. For whatever reason, I've never heard of these books, but they apparently are worth checking out. Thanks for the reviews!

    Thomas :)

    (NetChick sent me.)

  6. Books on tape seem like cheating to me.

    Then again, Southern accent? You might have convinced me.

  7. Thomas, check them out--I hope you enjoy them

    TC, CHEATING? No way, I generally do at least one book via tape (acutally ipod) a month while at the gym

  8. First everybody seems to get in trouble with The Times

    I love the anecdote about Rick, his father's casket and his mother pulling the tie off. It's something a mommy would do :)

  9. Nice review... do you take notes?! Sounds a little heavy to me, but that's probably because it's so real.

  10. Sage: Your choices of book material reveals a wealth of talent I did not know existed. I so enjoy reading these very well written glimpses that so accurately reflect the author and subject! Well Done!!!!

  11. Welcome back! The book sounds interesting, but not what I need to read given the current state of my life.