Rick Bragg's best books are about his home and the people he always loved. Once again, in The Most They Ever Had, he takes readers back to Jacksonville, Alabama, and tells the story of the strong people who lived there, and the tragedy of their lives in the mills.
One of the tragedies is that most of them never realized the tragedy, that they were making a living at the expense of their health. But, the mill was still working until 2001, while other textile mills across the South closed, sending the work to Mexico or China. And, despite the lint that destroyed their lungs and their health, or the machine accidents that took limbs, the people of the mill town needed those jobs. One by one, Rick Bragg, puts faces to those people. They were people, like his brother, Sam, who worked in the mill, so Bragg could go to college. These were hard-working people who didn't want much, parents who wanted "just a decent home, a good-running pick-up, and a like-new car every few years."
This is a story of plant closings and lay-offs, a story of the last few years in the United States, but it's a story with faces and personalities, thanks to Bragg. There's Homer Barnwell, who fought through World War II, and couldn't face the mill for long after he returned. He left the mill, but it was his town, and his people, and he stayed there. Clay Hammett told the story of the Nine, the mill's baseball team that was embraced by the entire community during the '20s, '30s, and '40s. And, Charles Hardy's story will break your heart, a man who lost his talent, and his arm, to the mill. It's the story of hard-working men and women who only wanted a decent life.
But, the story of the mill in Jacksonville is also the story of its manager, William Greenleaf. He represents so many rich men who didn't care what happened to the working men. He represents the men who even in the last year or so, retired with money and land while the workers lost their jobs.
No one is as eloquent in speaking for his people as Bragg. And, in this book, he brings them to life, while telling not only their story, but the story of so many workers. And, he reminded me so much of my father's story. No, he didn't have it as bad as the mill workers. But, he always referred to himself as a displaced farm boy, a man who went into the service because he was drafted, and then came home to marry, raise a family, and farm. But, he couldn't raise children, and give them a better future, sending them to college, as a farmer. And, he couldn't own a house as a farmer, the job he loved. So, like so many of Bragg's people, he left that life behind, went to work for DuPont, and, when that plant closed, for Columbia Gas, and then, finally, Chrysler. They were jobs he hated, shift work that might have led to his early death, but he and my mother brought us up in a nice home, sent us to a Catholic school, and put three daughters through college, all with advanced degrees. Even then, he was never happier than when he was out in his garden, as close to the farm as he could get.
So, thank you, Rick Bragg, for telling the story of your people. and allowing me to add the story of my father, Randy Growel. He was another working man who gave so much to provide a future for his children. The Most They Ever Had might be the about the life of one community, but it also represents our parents, who gave so much so we could have better jobs. Sad, isn't it, that our parents jobs have disappeared, along with so many of our jobs today? Bragg knows, and, reminds us, that all most of us want in this country is, "just a decent home, a good-running pick-up, and a like-new car every few years." Thank you, Rick Bragg, and, thank you, Dad.
The Most They Ever Had by Rick Bragg. MacAdam/Cage, ©2009. ISBN 978-1596923614 (hardcover), 250p.
Rick Bragg and Me
Dad and me, 1957