Rick Bragg, The Most They Ever Had (Blackstone Audio, 2009).
Several years ago I listened to the unabridged audio version of this book read by the author, Rick Bragg. For some reason, I never wrote a review of it at the time. I recently re-listened to the book and highly recommend it. I am sure the written copy is also excellent (I am a big fan of Rick Bragg’s writings), but with the audio version you can hear Rick Bragg “sing” the lyrics of his prose. This book celebrates the life of hard working men and women who worked in the cotton mills of the American South. It has been decades since I read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was accompanied with Walker Evan’s photographs of the down and out during the Depression. I do remember that Agee recommended his book be read aloud (I didn’t do it), but there is something about the way working people use language, that both Bragg and Agee captures, which is enhanced when audible.
The Most They Ever Had is a tribute, a love story, to the working men and woman (and even children) in the Southern cotton mills that have mostly closed. Bragg tells the story through the mill in Jacksonville, Alabama. His brother worked in that huge brick building where the machines rumbled as they turned cotton into thread. Bragg describes the building as “living” and it often consumed who worked behind its walls. The mill ran for over a hundred years and continued on long after many other mills in neighboring communities shut down.
Bragg presents the mill as a savior to the hill people who struggled to feed their families. The wages were low, “but it was still more than they ever had.” It was a regular paycheck, that was gone as soon as it arrived, but allowed people to get by. In time, the mill became safer and children were no longer desired for their nimble fingers that sometimes were lost in the machines. Wages rose as well as benefits. People owned their own small homes or trailers instead of living in company housing. And then, in 2001, after a century of operations and families that had sent generations into the mill, it closed for good.