Monday, April 28, 2008
The Prince of Frogtown
There's a gospel song entitled, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and Rick Bragg tries to answer that question in the last book in his family history, The Prince of Frogtown. He received a great deal of acclaim with the first two books in his family trilogy, All Over But the Shoutin', and Ava's Man. Now, he finishes the family circle with this story of his father, and his own relationship with his stepson.
Bragg's father, Charlie Bragg, received short shrift in his previous books. Bragg's memories of his father are of a man who drank and fought, deserted the family, until finally, Bragg's mother, Margaret, took the family and left. Bragg's later memories are of a dying man with TB, who continued to drink. Those memories aren't the only story. It took Bragg's marriage late in life to a woman with a son to lead him back to his own father's life.
The Prince of Frogtown actually has three story lines. One is the story of Jacksonville, Alabama, a mill town where the workers worked hard, drank hard, and died hard. One story is about Charles Bragg, Rick's father, and his family. For years, Charles tried to escape his hard-drinking family's life, but his experiences in Korea started a long downward slide. And, the third story is Rick's own story of learning to love a boy who was not the tough, hard-fighting boy that Rick knew from his own boyhood. The three stories intertwine in another heartbreaking tale, one that Bragg, the storyteller, is so good at relating.
Rick Bragg discovered a father he never knew, from the tales of his father's cousin, and some of the men who were loyal to the memory of Charles Bragg, a friend from childhood. The Prince of Frogtown might reveal even more about Rick Bragg than the previous books do, from the way he tells the stories of his father, and his new son. Bragg's book shows a man yearning for a connection to childhood, and innocence, but aware of the cruelty of a world that changes that innocence. His comment about his father, "Did anyone ever do a better job than they did, of squeezing the last little bit out of being a boy?" shows that love of boyhood. And, the most enjoyable part of the book is Bragg's attempt to relate to his son.
I met Rick Bragg a year or two before his marriage. He's a gentle man with people, careful of their feelings. I think he discovered that he hadn't been so careful with the story of Charles Bragg, a man he didn't really know. In the beautiful phrasing he's known for, Rick Bragg finally reconciles with his father, and closes the story of his own past in The Prince of Frogtown. In some ways, this is the saddest book of the trilogy. However, it's probably the book that will finally bring some peace to Bragg's own life.
The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg. Alfred A. Knopf, ©2008. ISBN 978-1-4000-4040-7 (hardcover), 288p.