A Voice Like Honey over Smoke

It's the voice. Someone described Rick Bragg's voice as 'honey over smoke'. That intrigued me. I listened to a CD copy of Rick Bragg reading The Prince of Frogtown. That Alabama rhythm caught me, that pure Southern sensibility; the words just seem to flow. The storyteller's magic takes over.

In All Over but the Shoutin' Rick Bragg wrote about growing up poor in the hill country of Alabama, especially about his mother picking cotton and cleaning houses so her boys would have more than the welfare checks she received. Rick's father was an alcoholic man and very violent. He seemed to float into the life of the family and out again at regular intervals.

The author Willie Morris once told Rick that he would never have any peace until he wrote about his father. In The Prince of Frogtown, Rick pieces together the story of his father's life from interviews with his faithful boyhood friends.

The people seem so real. His father, Charles, was destroyed by drink and destroyed by his hard scrabble, blue-collar life in the mills of Jacksonville, Alabama. Yet Rick lets the soul's true light shine through the awfulness.

You can't help but like this young mischievous, hell-bent for leather boy. Rick retells one incident where Charles and his friend were flying a kite so high that it was nearly invisible in the sky.

Another boy comes along and asks, "What you doing with that string?"

"Why we're fishing," Charles answered.

You ache for the alcoholic man and the family that he has let down. Rick does not whitewash or rewrite his father's life. You get a sense of the man that could have been, but for that evil drinking and the streak of violence that resulted from that drinking.

No one is more disappointed than Charles himself. He knew he could not be with his family, that he had ruined all the chances of a life with them by his ceaseless drinking and violent temper.

Interspersed with chapters about his father are chapters about "the boy" Rick's stepson. In these chapters, he describes his own journey into fatherhood and his growing love for this boy. This story gives light and humor to a dark tale. You grow to love this boy and his stepfather who tries so hard.

Now I want to read Ava's Man, the story of Rick's maternal grandfather and the culture that shaped him.