As a youngster
in northern Alabama
, Rick Bragg
awoke every morning to a hearty breakfast of biscuits and gravy, followed by backbreaking labor. Years later, he would wake up to hurricanes, deadlines, and the smell of Krispy Kreme
doughnuts. The most amazing thing is not the sharp contrast between his childhood
; it is the fact that he escaped the poverty
of his upbringing. Bragg’s memoir All Over but the Shoutin’
tells the story of his thoroughly Southern family, describes his career in journalism
, and explains his difficulty integrating the two. The book beautifully captures the desperation
, and fleeting moments of beauty
experienced by those living in rural
poverty; however, it would be a stronger book if it did not attempt to tell two different stories.
The first half of this book is very enjoyable. Bragg relaxes the rules of the English language and writes with a Southern twang, giving the book more authenticity. Bragg’s descriptions of family members, his poignant anecdotes, and the rich details he uses to draw the reader in are delightful. For example, his description of the smell of junk scavenged from the city dump is brilliant: “And I remember, with a clarity that I wish would fade, the smell of the stuff, that treasure. It is a sickly sweet smell laced with rot and smoke, because they burned trash back then, and often we had to race the flames to claim it. I have no doubt that this is what hell smells like” (42).
Another appealing aspect to Bragg’s writing is that he does not tell the reader, he shows, as in this passage about the southern social class system:
The first grade was divided into a rigid caste system by the ancient teacher, and I was placed clear across the room from the girl I liked. They named the sections of the divided classroom after birds. She was a Cardinal, one of the children of the well-to-do who studied from nice books with bright pictures, and I was a Jaybird, one of the poor or just plain dumb children who got what was left after the good books were passed out (56).
As the story continues into Bragg’s adulthood, the book takes on a different feel. The story is not primarily about his family and home anymore. It shifts abruptly and tells about Bragg’s adventures as a journalist. Bragg’s stories about hurricanes, Haiti, and Harvard are exciting, but they do not have much to do with his family. To his credit, Bragg does try to connect the two. For example, his brother gives him a logging hat “For them riots” (215). But this happens three chapters after Bragg escapes from the Miami race riots, and the two events are too distant for the intended sentimentality to be effective.
The chapters discussing Susan Smith and Haiti are especially disappointing. The information in those chapters relating to Bragg’s own life seems added as an afterthought, possibly at the urging of an editor. For example, the chapter about Susan Smith is ten pages long, but there are only two paragraphs that pertain to his family. Bragg has a very short conversation with his mother about the crime: “‘Momma,’ I said, ‘If it was us, when we were little, and a man had shoved a gun into your face and told you to get out of the car without us, what would you have done?’ ‘I would be dead,’ she said. ‘He would have had to have shot me’” (qtd in Bragg 281). Though the rest of the chapter discusses the desperation that a person living in poverty may feel, it is not directly related to the Bragg family and it seems superfluous. It should be emphasized that the writing itself is strong and enjoyable. The problem is that it weakens the book’s stated intention to be “The story of a strong woman, a tortured man and three sons who lived hemmed in by thin cotton and ragged history in northeastern Alabama” (xi).
All Over but the Shoutin’ is a commendable book penned by a skillful writer. Overall, it is an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it to others. However, it would be stronger if Bragg wrote about his professional exploits and his family’s challenging experiences separately and published in them in two volumes. I would like to read more of his colorful anecdotes about journalism and Southern life, but I do not want to read both at the same time.