When my wife told me that we were moving to Nashville so she could pursue her graduate studies, every stereotype I had internalized in my 25 or so years surfaced and my jokes, some out of nervousness and some out of meanness, began. Then someone gave both of us good advice. “Don’t assume,” that person said, their identity now completely gone, “that people who talk slowly are stupid.”
In that one sentence, he had named and shamed me and in the four years we spent in the south, I did my best to honor those words, both in letter in spirit. Not all of the stereotypes I’d anticipated were wrong. There were still Confederate flags on pick-up trucks and arguments about the Civil War or the War of Northern Aggression. (What to call it was one of the arguments.)
After those four years, I thought I’d learned to check my preconceptions at the door, but Rick Bragg’s outstanding memoir, All Over but the Shoutin’, quickly and frequently reminded me that I still have a great deal of work to do. Perhaps because he encountered so much of it during the long and winding trail of his journalism career, Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize winner, knows the stereotypes and judgments that linger in many Northerners, the amusement and confusion, for example, at the beautiful porch that is attached to a trailer.
In his Prologue, Bragg says that his is not an “important book,” and in this he is wrong. It is not just important because of the way it opens the eyes of Northerners like me, but because with his love letter to his mother, he shows us the honesty and integrity of a flawed life, well-lived. Bragg made his choices, his devotion to journalism costing him opportunities at traditional success. He recognizes himself in his father and knows he’s repeating certain parts of his life. Somewhere along the line, though, this recognition tempered his behavior and unlike his father, he is able to take care of his mother. And his account of his growth is so carefully rendered – he does not dwell on his mistakes, but they are clear – that I found myself rooting for him. When he meets a woman in the final pages of the book, I thought maybe that this was the ending I’d been seeking. But this is not a Hollywood moment. The encounter is brief and both of them know that their lives have brought them to a place where they both know that they can’t pursue it.
Bragg’s command of language – actually two languages – is masterful. He slides easily into Southern vocabulary and expressions, and they tend to serve as exclamation points, as markers that this moment is the end of the discussion.
The blurb on the cover of my edition includes an excerpt from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I ends by saying, “[Bragg] will make you cry.” In the chapter, “Coming Home,” which focuses on the death and destruction a storm brings to a church near Bragg’s hometown, he does just that. It is a story of faith questioned and faith renewed. One of my stereotypes about the South is my cynicism about the depth of people’s faith, but when Bragg repeats what he is told – that the town includes two hospitals and twenty churches – my tears came. Like Bragg, these people live their principles in their daily lives.
After reading this memoir, I will give Bragg the compliment that he received for his story about the church. When it comes to his life, including this book, it’s not that he gets it right; instead, he gets “it true.”
Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.