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This moving recollection of a life on the American margin is the story of Rick Bragg, who grew up dirt-poor in northeastern Alabama, seemingly destined for either the cotton mills or the penitentiary, and instead became a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. It is the story of Bragg's father, a hard-drinking man with a murderous temper and the habit of running out on the people who needed him most.
But at the center of this soaring memoir is Bragg's mother, who went eighteen years without a new dress so that her sons could have school clothes and picked other people's cotton so that her children wouldn't have to live on welfare alone. Evoking these lives--and the country that shaped and nourished them--with artistry, honesty, and compassion, Rick Bragg brings home the love and suffering that lie at the heart of every family. The result is unforgettable.
FROM THE AUTHOR:
This is a book about getting even with life.
It is the story of a young woman who absorbed the cruelties of her husband, an alcoholic, haunted Korean War veteran, until she could stand it no more, then gave up her whole life for her children. By picking cotton, cleaning toilets for the gentry, doing worse, she made sure that her three surviving sons would not have to walk around ashamed, in ragged clothes.
In a smaller way it is my story, the boy who climbed up her backbone and made it out of that ring of poverty and ignorance, free and clean. It is about what I did with the life she gave me, and how I tried to repay her, and how I tried--and failed so miserably--to rewrite the past.
The book is set in rural northeastern Alabama, and chronicles a poor, white trash family through three generations. The first third of the book is mostly about her and him, and us, me and my brothers, as babies. It shows the agony of the death of a baby brother who did not have to die, who didn't even get a name.
It also takes us with my father to Korea. He tugged me there, the last time I saw him alive, when I was just 16. The tales of terror he told me there still sit like a broken bottle in my mind.
The second third is about the wonderful life she gave me, the exotic, dark places I went, taking her spirit with me, like a talisman. It takes us to Haiti, to the transvestite hookers in the Village, to death row in Angola, Louisiana.
The last part is the getting even part, where a woman who had never been on a plane, never been higher than a second-story bathroom floor, travels to New York to see her son receive a Pulitzer Prize, and more. It ends with me keeping my promise to buy her a house, a real house, with my bitter victory over my dead father, and my sad defeat to the realization that no amount of brick and mortar will wall up the past, will let us, as a family, start new.
I feature, briefly, an alcoholic brother who seems to have absorbed the demons that killed my father in 1976. And I admit, finally, to having absorbed them myself.
On its lighter side, it is a story of vindication. People speak to my mother now, on the street. On its darker side, it is all about revenge. Failed revenge.
MORE FROM RICK BRAGG, ABOUT RICK BRAGG:
My Grandfather on my daddy's side and my grandma on my momma's side used to try and cuss their miseries away. They could out-cuss any damn body I have ever seen. I am only an amateur cusser at best, but I inherited other things from these people who grew up on the ridges and deep in the hollows of northeastern Alabama, the foothills of the Appalachians. They taught me, on a thousand front porch nights, as a million jugs passed from hand to hand, how to tell a story.
I make my living at it now, as a national correspondent for The New York Times, based in my native South (Atlanta). It was my dream to do this someday, but some things even I was afraid to dream.
In 1996, I was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, for what the judges called "elegantly written stories on contemporary America." They included stories on the country sheriff who caught Susan Smith, an Alabama prison where old inmates go to die, a Mississippi washerwoman who became a national hero, and the nightmare bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. I also won the prestigious American Society of Newspaper Editor's Distinguished Writing Award, for the second time. I have won more than 40 journalism awards, including several awards that might have actually helped people.
But the best thing that happened to me in 1996 was the contract for this book, which allowed me to keep a promise I had made to my mother--a woman who picked cotton, scrubbed floors and took in washing and ironing--who went 18 years without a new dress so I could have school clothes. With the advance from this book, I bought her a house, the first house she ever owned.
I teach writing at the Poynter Institute for media studies, at National Writers Workshops around the country. I taught some workshops at Harvard, and several newspapers have asked me to do in-house writing workshops, including The Times.
My stories are included in several "best of" collections of newspaper writing. I have written for the New York Times Sunday
Magazine, and others.
For good or bad, I am kind of unusual for a Times man. I have been at The Times for just three years, for the first six months on Metro in New York, writing about the homeless, violence, welfare hotels, other miseries, then covered Haiti for more than two months during the worst of the killing there in the late summer and the fall of 1994. I came home to find that I had been promoted to the national desk. They sent me home, almost, to Atlanta.
Before The Times, I worked briefly at The Los Angeles Times, a failed experiment, and before that as a roving national correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times. In 1992-93, I was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, the only real college I ever had. I think I was filling their white trash quota. I went just six months to Jacksonville State University, in Alabama, in the 1970s.
Before the Nieman, I was the St. Petersburg Times Miami Bureau Chief, covering south Florida, Haiti, the outbreak of the Gulf War, and other balmy places. Before Florida, I was a reporter in my native Alabama, at The Birmingham News, Anniston Star, Talladega Daily Home and Jacksonville News. I wrote about cockfights, speed trap towns, serial killers, George Wallace, Bear Bryant, and Richard Petty.
I was born in a small town hospital in northeastern Alabama on July 26, 1959. My momma went into labor about three-quarters of the way through the "Ten Commandments," which was showing at the Midway Drive-In. I am not making this up. I think it's in Chapter Four.
Since then, I have lived in Jacksonville, Anniston and Birmingham, all in Alabama, in Clearwater, Bradenton, Miami and St. Petersburg, in Florida, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Los Angeles, the corner of 110th and Broadway, New York City, and now Atlanta. I spend at least a quarter of the year in New Orleans, for The Times.
I am seldom at home. I am not married. If I had a dog, it would starve.