Redbirds by Rick Bragg

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Redbirds by Rick Bragg

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Wonderfully evocative and fully aware of the storytelling tradition, Redbirds is a deeply moving, honest and affectionate book. It will also add to your understanding of the wider social situation in America's southern states at that time. It is certainly one to which you may well want to return.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: May 1999
Publisher: The Harvill Press
ISBN: 1860463975

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Rick Bragg was born in the deep South of the United States, in Alabama. His father was a violent, hard-drinking man who regularly beat his wife; once as a small child, Bragg saw his mother tip away his fathers 'likker' and watched when his father returned and she simply stood there, took off her glasses and said, "Don't hurt my teeth." His mother was a determined, strong-willed, loving woman, who spent her entire life struggling to protect her sons from their father, the effects of poverty and the ignorance that had so constricted her own life and marriage. After years of abuse his father finally abandoned his wife and children when Bragg was only six. His mother moved the family to live with her parents where she struggled to scratch a living picking cotton and taking in washing so that her children could live just a little above the poverty line. She went without a new dress for almost twenty years. Sometimes they needed money so badly that she and her sons went trawling the garbage heaps for bottles to return for a cent or two. They were not alone, but it must have been so hard for an honest, proud woman and it's heartbreaking to read:

"The only thing poverty does is grind down your nerve endings to a point that you can work harder and stoop lower than most people are willing to. It chips away a person's dreams to the point that the hopelessness shows through, and the dreamer accepts that hard work and borrowed houses are all this life will ever be. While my mother will stare you dead in the eye and say she never thought of herself as poor, do not believe for one second that she did not see the rest of the world, the better world, spinning around her, out of reach."

Although so many parts of his life were ruled by poverty, Bragg came from a people rich in culture and the traditions of the pinewoods, there were games, storytellings, handcrafts and glorious freedom for small boys to run wild. There were happy times too.

Bragg graduated from high school, signed up for a journalism class and was soon offered a job as a sportswriter for the local paper. From there, he moved from small papers in northeast Alabama to The St. Petersburg Times. Drawn to the stories of the streets, of the homeless, of the disadvantaged and of violence and crime he started to win awards. He went to Haiti and saw first hand some of the terrible events in that country and eventually became a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. He even spent a year at Harvard, trying to lay to rest some of the chips on his shoulder left by his upbringing that even success in his career and plaudits from his peers couldn't quite remove. Redbirds is all about the past, all about making a life which leaves behind the bad, but remains tied to the good, to the duty and responsibility that loving relationships bring.

Meandering and reminiscent, it isn't a hurried read; whole chapters sometimes go by without development or a specific point to make, and Bragg often double tracks a little to include an afterthought, but it doesn't really matter, after all, memory is like that, isn't it? Redbirds doesn't always keep the plot tight and neither does memory, for neither does life. But it is a rich book, for while memory doesn't always have the tension of a tightly crafted thriller tale, it is a rich thing, full of anecdote, and detail, and impression, and feeling. I like lives. I like memory. I like to know what happens to people, what people think, and why they came to think it. It makes me feel like another piece of the big picture has just slotted into place.

Rick Bragg's writing isn't the greatest literary achievement ever, enthusiastic and generous reader though I am, even I cringed a little at some of the rather obvious images he uses from time to time. This is journalese, but it's good journalese because it's so honest and also because the unmistakenly Southern way of using language makes for a relaxed, easy read. I think Rick Bragg has a pretty good handle on the big picture himself, he can see the good and the bad in the world, in other people, and especially in himself and while he's sad about the bad parts he's rueful, rather than harsh and condemning. He sounds like a nice man to me. He's written a book about himself and his family, it's interesting to me especially for that, but he's also written about a dirt-poor upbringing in the deep South in a way which will add to anyone's understanding of the wider social situation at that time - while many black Americans have told their stories, and rightly so, the disparagingly named 'white trash' people have produced far fewer testimonies. He's also written about an eventful career in journalism covering some of the most distressing news stories of recent times.

But still, for me, it's the first part of Redbirds that is the most evocative, the childhood memories are the most striking and thought-provoking. I think I'll carry with me for a very long time the image of Rick Bragg as a child, watching his mother - too poor, too embarrassed, too ashamed of her clothes and the holes in her sneakers to go to church - praying along with the television preachers, hands on top of an old TV set:

"If I live to be a hundred, I will never forget her, eyes closed, lips moving in prayer, both hands pressed to the warm plastic top of the black-and-white television. On the screen was a young Oral Roberts in shades of grey, assuring my momma that God was close, that she could feel Him if her faith was strong enough, coursing through that second hand Zenith... All you had to do was reach out and feel the screen, feel that warmth, that electricity, and be Saved. I reached out to touch it myself once or twice, but all I felt was the hot glow of the picture tube."

And I think that his mother and his grandmother will see his book as a welcome continuation to the South's tradition of storytelling. I hope they do anyway, they should, because that's how I felt when I read it like I was sitting there, on the porch, listening to the story being told rather than reading it. And I think Rick Bragg would like to hear that.

For an equally evocative story of childhood, try Toast by Nigel Slater. You might also appreciate Carry Me Home by Terri Wiltshire.

Booklists.jpg Redbirds by Rick Bragg is in the Top Ten Biographies and Autobiographies.

Booklists.jpg Redbirds by Rick Bragg is in the Top Ten Books About America.

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