Saturday, September 19, 2015

My Southern Journey

My Southern Journey by Rick Bragg
Oxmoor House: 9/15/15
eBook review copy, 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780848746391

My Southern Journey by Rick Bragg is a very highly recommended collection of 72 essays on life in the South.

I'll admit I fell a little bit in love with Bragg and the South while reading these stories. They are comfortable, pull-up-a-chair-to-the-kitchen-table-and-let's-just-chat-and-tell-stories-for-awhile selections. And it needs to be in or near the kitchen because there will be eating, and talking about eating and good food with no apologies over calorie content. As he notes, "But grease is good. It has shortened many lives, probably my own, but is a life of rice cakes really life, or just passing time?" Bragg is a master at telling stories and I was totally entranced through every one (except, begging your forgiveness, the football stories.)

In the introduction Bragg write: "I hope you enjoy these stories, but more than that I hope you see value in the people whose lives are pressed between these pages. I have been told, a thousand times or more by kind people, that it can be like looking in a mirror, looking at people, places, and things that are more than familiar, and at feelings that seem lifted from their own hope chests, sock drawers, recipe books, and family secrets. Maybe that is what writers mean, when they talk about a sense of place."

He really does succeed in creating a sense of place and describing his southern journey with humor, charm, and reflection. Bragg also notes in the introduction: "It suits me, here. My people tell their stories of vast red fields and bitter turnip greens and harsh white whiskey like they are rocking in some invisible chair, smooth and easy even in the terrible parts, because the past has already done its worst. The joys of this Southern life, we polish like old silver. We are good at stories. We hoard them, like an old woman in a room full of boxes, but now and then we pull out our best, and spread them out like dinner on the ground. We talk of the bad year the cotton didn’t open, and the day my cousin Wanda was Washed in the Blood. We cherish the past. We buff our beloved ancestors till they are smooth of sin, and give our scoundrels a hard shake, though sometimes we cannot remember exactly which is who."

How can you not appreciate the flow of descriptive phrases there and hear the Southern accents gently visiting and sharing the many stories collected over a lifetime. There were so many descriptions I took note of or laughed at, or agreed with the sentiment. How about driving on a long road trip "with two states behind me and a thousand miles to go, scanning a radio thick with yammering bullies whose mamas did not love them enough." I am putting everyone on notice. I am going to use that turn of phrase, "yammering bullies whose mamas did not love them enough."

And I am in the Amen section concerning allowing kids to play in a good mud hole. "The children start school now in August. They say it has to do with air-conditioning, but I know sadism when I see it. I think a bunch of people who were not allowed to stomp in a mud hole when they were young - who were never allowed to hold translucent tadpoles in their hands and watch their hearts move - decided to make sure that no child would ever have the necessary time to contemplate a grand mud hole ever again." My own children did not have the good red dirt, but they did have mud holes over several years and states they could lay claim to. As for my childhood, my mother was also known for her use of bleach.

While laughing I also completely understood the sentiment when Bragg commented that "I knew, the day I saw my first pair of skinny jeans on a man, that I no longer have any place in this world, and should probably just go live by myself in a hole in the ground." "But there is no designer on this planet who has ever fashioned a garment with me in mind... and the camo rack at the Walmart does not count."

As a final note Bragg contemplates Southern literature: "Scholars have long debated the defining element of great Southern literature. Is it a sense of place? Fealty to lost causes? A struggle to transcend the boundaries of class and race? No. According to the experts, it’s all about a mule. And not just any old mule - only the dead ones count. Ask the experts."

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Oxmoor House for review purposes.

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