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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

With the same emotional generosity and effortlessly compelling storytelling that made All Over But the Shoutin’ a national bestseller, Rick Bragg continues his personal history of the Deep South. This time he’s writing about his grandfather Charlie Bundrum, a man who died before Bragg was born but left an indelible imprint on the people who loved him. Drawing on their memories, Bragg reconstructs the life of an unlettered roofer who kept food on his family’s table through the worst of the Great Depression; a moonshiner who drank exactly one pint for every gallon he sold; an unregenerate brawler, who could sit for hours with a baby in the crook of his arm.

In telling Charlie’s story, Bragg conjures up the backwoods hamlets of Georgia and Alabama in the years when the roads were still dirt and real men never cussed in front of ladies. A masterly family chronicle and a human portrait so vivid you can smell the cornbread and whiskey, Ava’s Man is unforgettable.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

From Chapter One:
The beatin’ of Blackie Lee

The foothills of the Appalachians
the 1930s

Ava met him at a box-lunch auction outside Gadsden, Alabama, when she was barely fifteen, when a skinny boy in freshly washed overalls stepped from the crowd of bidders, pointed to her and said, “I got one dollar, by God.” In the evening they danced in the grass to a fiddler and banjo picker, and Ava told all the other girls she was going to marry that boy someday, and she did. But to remind him that he was still hers, after the cotton rows aged her and the babies came, she had to whip a painted woman named Blackie Lee.

Maybe it isn’t quite right to say that she whipped her. To whip somebody, down here, means there was an altercation between two people, and somebody, the one still standing, won. This wasn’t that. This was a beatin’, and it is not a moment that glimmers in family history. But of all the stories I was told of their lives together, this one proves how Ava loved him, and hated him, and which emotion won out in the end.

Charlie Bundrum was what women here used to call a purty man, a man with thick, sandy hair and blue eyes that looked like something you would see on a rich woman’s bracelet. His face was as thin and spare as the rest of him, and he had a high-toned, chin-in-the-air presence like he had money, but he never did. His head had never quite caught up with his ears, which were still too big for most human beings, but the women of his time were not particular as to ears, I suppose.

He was also a man who was not averse to stopping off at the beer joint, now and again, and that was where he encountered a traveling woman with crimson lipstick and silk stockings named Blackie Lee. People called her Blackie because of her coal-black hair, and when she told my granddaddy that she surely was parched and tired and sure would ’preciate a place to wash her clothes and rest a spell before she moved on down the road, he told her she was welcome at his house.

They were living in north Georgia at that time, outside Rome. Ava and the five children—there was only James, William, Edna, Juanita and Margaret then—were a few miles away, working in Newt Morrison’s cotton field. Charlie always took in strays—dogs, men and women, who needed a place—but Blackie was a city woman and pretty, too, which set the stage for mayhem.

It all might have gone unnoticed. Blackie Lee might’ve washed her clothes, set a spell and then just moved along, if that was all that she was after. But we’ll never know. We’ll never know because she had the misfortune to hang her stockings on Ava Bundrum’s clothesline in front of God and everybody.

Miles away from there, Ava was hunched over in the cotton field, dragging a heavy sack, her fingers and thumbs on fire from the needle-sharp stickers on the cotton bolls. Newt Morrison’s daughter, Sis, came up alongside of her in the field, one row over, and lit the fuse.

“Ava,” said Sis, who had driven past Ava and Charlie’s house earlier that day, “did you get you some silk stockings?”

Ava said no she had not, what foolishness, and just picked on.

“Well,” Sis said, “is your sister Grace visitin’ you?”

No, Ava said, if Grace had come to visit, she would have written or sent word.

“Well,” said Sis, “I drove past y’all’s place and seen some silk stockings on the line, and I thought they must have been Grace’s, ’cause she’s the only one I could think of that would have silk stockings.”

Ava said well, maybe it was Grace, and picked on. Grace had wed a rich man and had silk stockings and a good car and may have come by, just on a whim. That must be it. Had to be.

Edna, then only a little girl, said her momma just kept her back bowed and her face down for a few more rows, then jerked bolt upright as if she had been stung by a bee, snatched the cotton sack from her neck and flung it, heavy as it was, across two rows.

Then she just started walking, and the children, puzzled, hurried after her. Even as an old woman Ava could walk most people plumb into the ground, and as a young woman she just lowered her head and swung her arms and kicked up dust as she powered down the dirt road to home.

When she swung into the yard, sometime later, it was almost dark and Blackie Lee was on the porch, cooling herself. Ava stopped and drew a breath and just looked at her for a moment, measuring her for her coffin. Then she stomped over to the woodpile and picked up the ax.

About that time it must have dawned on Blackie Lee who this young woman was, who these big-eyed children were, and she ran inside, put the latch down on the door and began to speak to Jesus.

Ava just stood there, breathing hard, her long hair half in and half out of her dew rag, and announced that the woman could either open the door and take her beatin’ or take her beatin’ after Ava hacked down her own door. And “you might not want me to walk in thar, with a’ ax in my hand.” Blackie Lee, hysterical, unlatched the door and stepped back, and Ava, as she promised, dropped the ax and stepped inside.

She might not have beat the woman quite so bad if it had not been for the dishpan. It had dirty water in it, from that woman’s clothes. No one, no one, washed their clothes in Ava’s dishpan.

Edna stood at the door, peeking.

Listen to her:

“Momma beat her all through the house. She beat her out onto the porch, beat her out into the yard and beat her down to the road, beat her so hard that her hands swelled up so big she couldn’t fit ’em in her apron pocket. Then she grabbed aholt of her with one hand and used the other hand to flag down a car that was comin’, and she jerked open that car door and flung that woman in and told the man drivin’ that car to get her ‘on outta here.’ And that man said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and drove off with Blackie Lee.”

Charlie was at work when this happened, which was very fortunate, so fortunate that, even now, his children swear that there was God’s hand in it. Even with temptation at his house, he went off to work, and made a living, and it saved him, it saved everything. A weak man would have just laid out that day, and if he had been home Ava would have killed him dead as Julius Caesar.

Ava and the five children went back to Newt Morrison’s to spend the night. Newt was distant kin and Ava knew she was welcome there. But first she walked inside her house and threw that dishpan out into the yard as far as she could.

That night, Charlie showed up to take them home. And Ava lit into him so hard and so fast that Charlie lost one of his shoes in the melee and had to fight from an uneven platform, which is bad when you have what seems to be a badger crawling and spittin’ around your head. They fought, Edna said, all the way down the hall, crashing hard into the wall, making a hellish racket and scaring everybody in there to death. Children screamed and dogs barked and Charlie just kept on hollerin’ over and over, “Dammit, Ava. Quit.” Finally they crashed onto a bed, and into the room walked the old man, Newt, barefoot, one of his overall galluses on and one off. Newt thought that it was Charlie who was beating his wife to death, instead of the other way around, and all he knew was that this boy, Charlie, kin or not, had invaded his home, rattled the walls and frightened his family.

Newt, stooped and gray and gnarly, was much too old to fistfight a man in his own house. So he reached into his overalls pocket, fished out his pocketknife and flicked out a blade long enough to cut watermelon.

Ava took one look at that knife and flung her body across her husband, to shield him. Then she looked up at Newt, and when she spoke there were spiders and broken glass in her voice.

“Don’t you touch him,” she hissed.

* * *

Everybody has a moment like it. If they never did, they never did love nobody, truly. People who have lived a long, long time say it, so it must be so.

* * *

They never spoke about it. They never had another moment like it again. They fought—my Lord, did they fight—for thirty years, until the children were mostly grown and gone. But they stuck. You go through as much as they did, you stick. I have seen old people do it out of spite, as if growing old together was some sweet revenge. Charlie and Ava did not get to grow old together. What they got was life condensed, something richer and sweeter and—yes—more bitter and violent, life with the dull moments just boiled or scorched away.

She never bowed to him, and he never made her, and they lived that way, in the time they had.

Every now and then, they would jab a little. She would stand over her new dishpan and recite a little poem as she gently rinsed her iron skillet and biscuit pans:

Single life is a happy life

Single life is a pleasure

I am single and no man’s wife

And no man can control me

He would pretend not to hear. And bide his time, to get even.

“Daddy,” Margaret asked him once, when she was still a little girl, “how come you haven’t bought us a radio?”

Charlie would just shake his head.

“Hon, we don’t need no radio,” he would say, and then he would point one of his long, bony fingers at Ava. “I already got a walkie-talkie.”

And on and on it went, them pretending, maybe out of pride, that they did not love each other, and need each other, as much as they did.

As time dragged on they would break out the banjo—Charlie was hell-hot on a banjo—and the guitar, which Ava played a lifetime. And in the light of an old kerosene lantern, as the children looked on from their beds, they would duel.

Charlie would do “Doin’ My Time”—his commentary on marriage—and grin while she stared hard at him from behind her spectacles:

On this ol’ rock pile

With a ball and chain

They call me by a number

Not my name

Gotta do my time

Lord, Lord

Gotta do my time


Then Ava would answer with “Wildwood Flower” or something like it:

I’ll sing and I’ll dance

And my laugh shall be gay

I’ll charm every heart

And the crowd I will sway

I’ll live yet to see him

Regret the dark hour

When he won and neglected

This frail wildwood flower


And Charlie would sing back at her with another song, about being on a chain gang, or doing time in a Yankee prison, or “All the Good Times Are Past and Gone”:

I wish to the Lord

I’d never been born

Or “Knoxville Girl”:

We went to take an evening walk

About a mile from town

I picked a stick up off the ground

And knocked that fair girl down


But it always ended in dancing, somehow. He would beat those banjo strings and she would buck-dance around the kitchen, her skirts in her hands, her heavy shoes smacking into the boards, and the children would laugh, because it is impossible not to when your momma acts so young.

* * *

Much, much later, when she had passed seventy, she still played and she still sang but she could not really see how to tune her guitar, and her hand shook too much to do it right, anyway. She would miss a lick now and then, and she would always frown at what time had done to her. But she never forgot the words to “Wildwood Flower.”

I’ll think of him never

I’ll be wild and gay

I’ll cease this wild weeping,

Drive sorrow away

But I wake from my dreaming

My idol was clay

My visions of love

Have all vanished away


* * *

It didn’t all start there, of course, with the beating of that unfortunate woman. The beginning of their story goes way, way back, beyond them, even beyond the first Bundrum to drift here, to these green foothills that straddle the Alabama-Georgia border. In it, I found not only the beginnings of a family history but a clue to our character.

All my life, I have heard the people of the foothills described as poor, humble people, and I knew that was dead wrong. My people were, surely, poor, but they were seldom humble. Charlie sure wasn’t, and his daddy wasn’t, and I suspect that his daddy’s daddy wasn’t humble a bit. And Ava, who married into that family, was no wilting flower, either. A little humility, a little meekness of spirit, might have spared us some pain, over the years, but the sad truth is, it’s just not in us. With the exception of my own mother, maybe, it never was.

For a family so often poor, we have, for a hundred years or more, refused to adapt our character very much. But then, if we had been willing to change just a little bit, we never would have gotten here in the first place.

We are here because our ancestors were too damn hardheaded to adapt, to assimilate. We are here because someone with a name very much like Bundrum picked a fight with the King of France, and the Church of Rome.


From the Hardcover edition.
Rick Bragg|Author Desktop

About Rick Bragg

Rick Bragg - Ava's Man

Photo © Steven Forster

Rick Bragg is the author of two best-selling books, Ava’s Man and All Over but the Shoutin’. He divides his time between New Orleans and his native Alabama.

 

Rick Bragg is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (http://www.rhspeakers.com).

Author Q&A

Rick Bragg's Desktop contains photos from the Bundrum and Bragg family archives--of Charlie Bundrum, of Rick's mother, and of Rick and his siblings, with accompanying text from Ava's Man and the author. You can also view maps of Georgia and Alabama, where Charlie Bundrum lived, worked, and raised his family, and listen to Rick read from Ava's Man.

Praise

Praise

“Grab[s] you from the first sentence....[and] stays with you long after you put it down....It is hard to think of a writer who reminds us more forcefully and wonderfully of what people and families are all about.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Earthy, mischievous, yet gorgeous. . . . [Bragg’s] tales . . . would not be out of place if they were told around a campfire.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“As toothsome as a catfish supper. [Bragg] is every bit the equal of . . . Harper Lee and Truman Capote.” —People

“[Bragg has] a true gift for great storytelling (the kind...that makes you think it’s just a plain old story, until he gets to the end and you’re either weeping or covered with goosebumps).” —New Orleans Times-Picayune
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“Grab[s] you from the first sentence . . . [and] stays with you long after you put it down. . . . It is hard to think of a writer who reminds us more forcefully and wonderfully of what people and families are all about.” —The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Ava’s Man, Rick Bragg’s brilliant story of his grandfather’s unique life, the follow-up to his bestselling and deeply affectionate portrait of his mother, All Over but the Shoutin’.

About the Guide

“Since I never really had a grandfather,” Bragg writes in the prologue, “I decided to make me one. . . . I built him up from dirt level, using half-forgotten sayings, half-remembered stories and a few yellowed, brittle, black-and-white photographs that, under the watch of my kin, I handled like diamonds” [p. 10]. The result is a vividly drawn portrait of a man who made a profound and lasting impression on all those who knew him. Charlie Bundrum, the father of Bragg’s mother, was a poor, backwoods roofer and sometime maker and seller of moonshine. He was a man who lived all his life in poverty and settled his arguments with his fists—a man so quick he could snatch a squirrel out of a tree, so strong he could throw two highway patrolmen out of a beer joint, and so fearless he could stare down the barrel of a shotgun and take it away from a hothead who threatened his family. But he was also a generous and loyal friend, a loving husband, father, and grandfather who worked fiercely to stave off starvation during the Great Depression, moving his family twenty-one times in ten years in the hope of finding better work. Bragg brings his grandfather fully to life, not by turning him into a saint but by revealing his faults—his proclivity for fighting and love of “likker”—as well as all those qualities that brought hundreds of people to his funeral and could still bring tears to the eyes of his family members forty years after his death.

Though not the kind of man often found in history books, Charlie Bundrum was a hero to many, and in Bragg’s gripping narrative he is a representative figure of a vanishing culture, “the last bridge between those old, wild days of the river and this more civilized time” [p. 236]. Although Bragg was never acquainted with his grandfather in life, in Ava’s Man he comes to know the man behind the family myth and gives readers the unique and unforgettable pleasure of knowing him as well.

About the Author

Rick Bragg is the bestselling author of All Over but the Shoutin’ and Somebody Told Me. A national correspondent for The New York Times, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1996. He lives in New Orleans.

Discussion Guides

1) In the prologue, Rick Bragg wonders about his grandfather, “What kind of man was this . . . who is so beloved, so missed, that the mere mention of his death would make [his family] cry forty-two years after he was preached into the sky?” [p. 9] How does the book answer this question? What kind of man is Charlie Bundrum? Why does his memory evoke such powerful emotions in those who knew him?

2) Bragg says that he wrote this story “for a lot of reasons,” one of which was “to give one more glimpse into a vanishing culture” [p. 13]. How does he create a vivid picture of that culture? What does he admire about it? How is it different from “the new South”? What other reasons compelled Bragg to write about a grandfather he never knew?

3) Bragg says that Charlie Bundrum was “blessed with that beautiful, selective morality that we Southerners are famous for. Even as a boy, he thought people who steal were trash, real trash. . . . Yet he saw absolutely nothing wrong with downing a full pint of likker . . . before engaging in a fistfight that sometimes required hospitalization” [p. 53]. What kind of moral code does Charlie live by? Are his frequent acts of violence justifiable? In what sense can Charlie be called a hero?

4) Charlie is a man of great physical strength and courage, but what instances of kindness, generosity, and caring balance the violence and recklessness in his life? How does the inclusion of this kind of behavior in Bragg’s description create a richer and fuller portrait of the man?

5) In speaking of his grandfather’s legacy, Bragg says, “A man like Charlie Bundrum doesn’t leave much else, not title or property, not even letters in the attic. There’s just stories, all told second- and thirdhand, as long as somebody remembers” [p. 18]. What is the value of preserving the kind of stories that Bragg gathers in Ava’s Man?

6) Ava’s Man is filled with dramatic confrontations and vivid scenes. What episodes stand out the most? What do these episodes reveal about the character of the Bundrum family?

7) In considering his grandfather’s drinking, Bragg writes, “I am not trying to excuse it. He did things that he shouldn’t have. I guess it takes someone who has outlived a mean drunk to appreciate a kind one” [p. 133]. What does this passage suggest about Bragg’s personal stake in reconnecting with his grandfather? What kind of portrait does he paint of his own father in Ava’s Man?

8) Charlie Bundrum “was a man who did the things more civilized men dream they could, who beat one man half to death for throwing a live snake at his son, who shot a large woman with a .410 shotgun when she tried to cut him with a butcher knife, who beat the hell out of two worrisome Georgia highway patrolmen and threw them headfirst out the front door of a beer joint called the Maple on the Hill” [p. 8]. In what ways is Charlie free from the constraints of society? What is the cost of this freedom? Is Bragg right in thinking that Charlie’s way of living is something that more civilized men envy?

9) Bragg writes that Ava could have had her sister Grace’s life, a life of relative wealth and comfort, of fine clothes, good food, and travel, instead of a life of rented houses, poverty, and hard labor in the cotton fields. “She could have hated her life,” Bragg admits [p. 153]. Why doesn’t she? What does Charlie give her that other men cannot? What kind of woman is she?

10) Why does Charlie take in Hootie? What does this reveal about his character? What does Hootie bring out in Charlie?

11) Bragg writes that Charlie “could charm a bird off a wire” [p. 45]. What are the charms of Bragg’s own storytelling style? Where else does he use colorful similes? In what ways is his narrative voice perfectly suited to his subject matter?

12) What does Ava’s Man reveal about how the Great Depression affected people in the Deep South, especially those who lived in the foothills? How did it affect the Bundrums specifically? How are they treated by landlords, sheriffs, and others in positions of power?

13) For centuries, recorded history has largely been the account of those who have had the greatest impact on world events. Why is the history of a man like Charlie Bundrum important? In what ways does it offer a door into American history and culture that more conventional histories cannot provide?

14) In the epilogue, Bragg argues that when compared with the new South, Charlie Bundrum seems larger than life, because of “his complete lack of shame. He was not ashamed of his clothes, his speech, his life. He not only thrived, he gloried in it” [p. 248]. What accounts for Charlie’s pride? Why is Bragg so proud of him? What does Ava’s Man suggest about the way in which inner character is more important than external circumstances?

Suggested Readings

James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families in the Deep South; Judy Blunt, Breaking Clean; Rick Bragg, All Over but the Shoutin’; Jimmy Carter, An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood; Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression; Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; T. H. Watkins, The Great Depression: America in the 1930s; Richard Wright, Black Boy.

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