Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ava's Man

Ava's Man by Rick Bragg
Random House, copyright 2001
Trade Paperback, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780375724442
Very Highly Recommended

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of All Over but the Shoutin’ continues his personal history of the Deep South with an evocation of his mother’s childhood in the Appalachian foothills during the Great Depression, and the magnificent story of the man who raised her.
Charlie Bundrum was a roofer, a carpenter, a whiskey-maker, a fisherman who knew every inch of the Coosa River, made boats out of car hoods and knew how to pack a wound with brown sugar to stop the blood. He could not read, but he asked his wife, Ava, to read him the paper every day so he would not be ignorant. He was a man who took giant steps in rundown boots, a true hero whom history would otherwise have overlooked.
In the decade of the Great Depression, Charlie moved his family twenty-one times, keeping seven children one step ahead of the poverty and starvation that threatened them from every side. He worked at the steel mill when the steel was rolling, or for a side of bacon or a bushel of peaches when it wasn’t. He paid the doctor who delivered his fourth daughter, Margaret—Bragg’s mother—with a jar of whiskey. He understood the finer points of the law as it applied to poor people and drinking men; he was a banjo player and a buck dancer who worked off fines when life got a little sideways, and he sang when he was drunk, where other men fought or cussed. He had a talent for living.

My Thoughts:

In Ava's Man Rick Bragg has written a unique tribute to his maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum, a man he never knew but one he learned about through the stories of others.  Bragg introduces us to Charlie through the carefully written anecdotes he has collected from those who knew Charlie personally. Charlie was a husband, father, roofer, and bootlegger. He was a man who lived by his own personal code in a specific area and place in time.

Charlie Bundrum was "so beloved, so missed, that the mere mention of his death would make them [his grown daughters] cry forty-two years after he was preached into the sky."(pg. 9) "He grew up in hateful poverty, fought it all his life and died with nothing but a family that worshiped him and a name that gleams like new money." (pg. 12) Bragg said that he wrote this book in response to those who told him that he "short-shrifted them in the first book, especially about Charlie, about Ava, about their children" (pg.13) After Bragg's  All Over but the Shoutin' readers wanted to know more about the people who were his mother's parents.

In this tribute to his grandfather, Bragg has crafted an amazing, descriptive portrait of his grandfather, a man who lived in crushing poverty during the Depression. He protected his children at all costs. He liked to drink the "likker" he distilled, yet he was a drinker who would laugh rather than get angry. "Even as a boy, he thought people who steal were trash, real trash. 'And a man who'll lie,' he said, even back then, 'will steal.' " (pg. 53) 

This biography of Charlie Bundrum is a truly amazing tribute. Bragg's use of language clearly evokes the time and place as well as establishing the characters. This is a memoir that could have become maudlin, but I really think that the quality of Bragg's writing sustains the narrative and elevates it above the ordinary. This is a genuine, honest, portrait of the grandfather Bragg never knew except through the stories of others and a book that should be treasured for generations to come.
Very Highly Recommended - one of the best


A man like Charles Bundrum doesn't leave much else, not a title or property, not even letters in the attic. There's just stories, all told second- and thirdhand, as long as somebody remembers. The thing to do, if you can, is write them down on new paper. pg. 18
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. pg. 19-20

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.  pg. 26-27

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