Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Bragging Rites

By Carey Checca

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  Momma’s doing well in her new, big house. Older brother Sam is steady and straight and still working at the cotton mill. Mark, he’s been straight up and down for the last year. He’s not haunted by the same ghosts that haunted his daddy.

And Rick Bragg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose memoir of growing up dirt-poor in northeastern Alabama is the story of all of these people, is finding as he travels the United States on a tour for All Over but the Shoutin’ that the story of his mother’s sacrifice and hard work has been repeated across the country.

“People come up and say I stole their momma’s story,” Bragg says. All Over but the Shoutin’ is the story of Margaret Bragg, a strong woman who picked cotton and ironed mounds of clothes so her three boys wouldn’t have to live on welfare alone. Abandoned by her hard-drinking husband, Margaret went without a new dress for 18 years so that her sons could have school clothes and so that maybe one of them could climb out of the poverty and hopelessness that hemmed in their lives in Possum Trot, Alabama.

“Anyone could tell it,” Bragg writes, “and that’s the shame of it.”

Bragg escaped the poverty and laboring in the cotton mills that caught his brothers. He now works at The New York Times as a national correspondent based out of Atlanta. Having arrived at what he calls the temple of his profession and winning the Pulitzer Prize, Bragg turned to honoring his mother by writing her story.

Bragg says of the book: “There hasn’t been one single thing that has caused anyone pain.” (Although one of his aunts badgers him for admitting to getting drunk twice a year. Considering his family’s hard-drinking past, Bragg thinks getting drunk twice a year isn’t bad.)

“My mom was a large part of writing this book,” Bragg says. He read the book to her before it came out so there were no surprises. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

In fact, he says, there isn’t a day that goes by when someone doesn’t call his mother or send her a letter letting her know how much they admire her.

“Having people like her was intended,” he explains. While Bragg admits to hiding behind his mother, not in a sulking way, but a proud way, the story is also his. “I could have made myself look a whole lot better,” Bragg says. “People know, for instance, that I’ve had some difficulty with relationships. A lot of nice, elderly women come up and say, ‘You should meet my granddaughter.’ There’s not much honor in not telling the truth. “People seem like they’re always asking about the members of my family. I guess people think they know them.”

And his family is doing well. With the advance money from All Over but the Shoutin’, Bragg not only bought a house on a hill for his mother, he’s paid the mortgage on his brother Sam’s house.

“Maybe that gives him peace of mind,” Bragg says.

And he’s helping pay for the materials for his brother Mark to rebuild his house that was destroyed by a fire.

“He’s spending a lot of time with my mom,” Bragg says. “It fills up that big house and makes everyone less lonely.”

As for Bragg, he’s still got his day job at The New York Times. But for the next few weeks, he’s on his book tour.

“It’s really nice to see these places. I probably never would have gone to St. Louis.” Bragg explains, “In my job, I only get to see a place if there has been a tragedy.”

Bragg has been enjoying the success of his book tour: “It’s been nice to touch someone with what you’ve written.”

“Occasionally,” he says, “they’ll say it changed their life. That embarrasses me.”

For the past three years All Over but the Shoutin’ has taken up a large part of Bragg’s life. He knows the excitement of the book will die down eventually. But he’s got his own peace of mind now. His mother’s house – a comfortable place for her in her old age – is paid for. And most of the family’s ghosts have been put to rest.

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