Wednesday, April 29, 2009

All Over but the Shoutin' (A book review)

Rick Bragg, All Over but the Shoutin’ (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 329 pages.

This is the first volume of Rick Bragg’s trilogy about his family. Of course, in my usual way of doing things, it’s the last of the three that I read. All Over but the Shoutin’ is the story of Bragg’s family, the mother he loves, the father who abandoned them and their three (or should it be four) children. But mostly, it’s the Rick Bragg’s story of growing up in poverty and, without a college education, continued on to win a year-long Nieman fellowship for journalistic study at Harvard and then to become a Pulitzer prize winning journalist for the New York Times. But with all the accolades, Bragg never forgot from where he came or the mother who saw him through the hard times.

Bragg’s family life was tragic. His father was an alcoholic who probably suffered Post Traumatic Stress from his time in Korea. At times, he’d stop drinking and would work and things would look up, but that never lasted for more than a month or two. Soon, the demons would return and he’d begin drinking again and would run-off, stranding his mother with the boys. The story of his mother pouring his father’s booze down the drain and then, when he came home, her taking off her glasses and asking him to be careful with her teeth, while her two small sons stood by helpless, looking on from the bedroom door, is heartbreaking. Thankfully, that time he didn't hit her. She protected her sons from his rage. A preschooler, hearing his father blame all his problems on his mother and her kids (of which he's one), is a cruel experience. When Rick was six, his mother became pregnant again, but she lost her fourth boy at birth. With his father running off and abandoning the family, there wasn’t enough money for food or medical care. As an adult, Rick learns that his mother had never forgotten the unnamed boy, noting the date he'd turned thirty. He thinks about getting him a tombstone engraved with the name his mother had picked out for him, but realizes he can't undo the past.

Bragg sees himself as lucky. His life could have ended up in another way. His older brother works hard in the mills; his younger brother has followed his father's path. He confesses that he's afraid of drinking alone, afraid that he'll go down the same road as his father. He was in high school when his father died. When he last saw him, a few months from his death, his father was just the shell of the man he'd been. Nothing his condition, he told his son, "it's all over but the shoutin'. It was in high school that Rick found his niche while working for the school newspaper. Afterwards, with one college journalism class under his belt, he began writing for small weeklies in Alabama. At first, he was a sport’s reporter. Football, he claims, is what Southerners do today in place of dueling. He worked his way up to the Birmingham paper, the largest in the state. From there, he went to St. Petersburg, Florida. In the late 80s, because none of their foreign correspondents wanted to go, he headed to Haiti, a place he’d visit on a number of occasions over the next decade. Then he had his fellowship at Harvard, a short stint with the Los Angeles Times before realizing that it wasn’t a good match. Then he calls the New York Times and asks if they still were interested (he’d turned them down). At the end of the book, he’s working for the Times in Atlanta, a city he thinks is about as Southern as a snowmobile (I agree). Along the way, he’s covered the riots in Miami, the Oklahoma City bombing, crime in New Orleans, a terrible tornado in his hometown, and the Susan Smith murders (the South Carolina woman who killed her children then claimed to have been car jacked by an African-American man). Although Bragg originally believed Smith (like other journalists and even the police), he had an interesting inside into her psyche, having grown up like her, poor in a mill town.

Bragg is a master at metaphors, which gives his writing a fresh down-home feel. He claims that he didn’t become a journalist to change the world; he became one to tell stories. And telling stories is what he does so well, that when you finish reading one you feel as if you were there watching the drama unfold.
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.
For Gautami's "reconstructed" reading room, click here.


  1. This sounds like one for my reading list!

  2. Never forgetting where you're from is very important for maintaining a sense of balance. I've found that people who refuse to acknowledge their roots, who have no sense of place or personal history, tend to be pretty unhappy people. I wonder whether such will become generational with the increased mobility of our society.


  3. Interesting review and story. It's always amazing to look at the challenges some have faced- and overcome.

  4. Jay, You'll have to write a review--as you have a blog for that!

    Randall, interesting link you made about not acknowledging one's roots and being unhappy--I'm going to have to think about it, but from a few people that come to mind, it appears a thesis that holds water.

    Beau, he did overcome a lot of challenges.

  5. Your own journey is just as impressive, Sage! Have a nice weekend! :)

  6. Thanks for coming by my silly blog. So you write book reviews! I have not read Rick Bragg. I recently read a book called The People of the Book which I enjoyed immensely. I thought about reviewing it, but I am not blogging very frequently right now.

  7. Michael, thanks, but I came out of a family with both parents and one free of abuse and poverty.

    Enemy, I've seen you on the Walking Guy's blog--you had also posted a comment in my index blog (where I have some pics and is a holding blog for topics I post here). As I don't regular read comments there, I was just getting back to you. You do have a very interesting blog and a name that certainly catches attention.

  8. Looks like I've got some reading to do. A recommendation from you is as good as a sure fire thing.

    Visiting from Tanya's again - sick of me yet?


  9. Another one to add to my ever-growing list, Sage!

  10. Wow, this book sounds wonderful, as does his style of storytelling. I think I will definitely pick this one up. Great review, Sage.