Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Most They Ever Had by Rick Bragg

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


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I was in Birmingham when Rick's first book, "All Over But the Shouting" came out, and everyone was so PROUD of him there! It was wonderful to see. He's an excellent writer and I'll look forward to this book.

Great story about your father, Lesa, and such a sweet picture!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

And, they should be proud of him, Elizabeth. He's not only an excellent writer, he's a kind man.

Thank you! I love that picture. And, I have a gorgeous one of him reading to me when I was little.

Mason Canyon said...

This sounds like a great book. The stories of these people (and other workers like them) are sometime lost. We don't stop and think how their contributions touched so many lives that they never knew. From the products they made for all those years to now with their stories being told, they will continue to touch lives.

Love the photo of you and your Dad.

Lesa said...

Mason - It's another one of Rick Bragg's books about the people he loves. He's always so eloquent in writing about them. and, yes, we don't think about the people who work so hard to make our lives a little better.

Thank you. I love that picture, too.

bermudaonion said...

I've got to get hold of this book! I got to meet Bragg and hear him speak the last time we lived in Alabama. I also come from a family of lintheads - my dad joined the Navy to get away from the mills.

queeniehoffman said...

I will definitely buy Rick's book. It sounds like a real winner.

And, Lesa, the photograph of you and your dad is precious.

Lesa said...

Oh, Bermudaonion! This book will have special meaning to you because your family knew these type of people.

Lesa said...

Thank you! I like that picture of my Dad with me, too.

Jim said...


What a great review! And it is so appropriate to include your father in it. Knowing both Rick & your father, they had many of the same values!

Just for those that don't know, I had the honor of being Rick's escort the day you had him at the Library Festival. I don't believe I have ever met a warmer, more caring individual than Rick. You will remember by the end of the day, I was speaking with Rick's twang! And when he autographed books for over 125 people, I was so impressed that he treated each person like they were the only person in line. And then to have lunch with just you & I, and Rick and Doug Brinkley, was like magic! They were both so nice.

Thank you for introducing me to all the authors that you have, and allowing me into your wonderful family!

Love Jim xoxo

Lesa said...

Thank you, Jim. That was a magical day, and, particularly lunch with Doug Brinkley and Rick Bragg. I still can't believe we were able to sit there and listen to them. Wonderful day!

I'm glad you enjoy meeting the authors as much as I do.

And, I'm glad you're in our family!

Love you!

caite said...

although a few of my mother's family were in the garment industry, coal was the killer of so many of my mother's lung and such. it was a hard life in a town not unlike the one Bragg writes about.

personally I am in the gas business...not Columbia Gas, although I have dealings with them...and am a happy shift worker, but I will agree it does have health concerns.

sounds like an interesting book.

Lesa said...

Tough lives for your family, Caite, working in coal. I still think shift work wasn't good for my father's health.

KY Warrior Librarian said...

I love Rick Bragg. "All Over But the Shoutin'" is my all time favorite, but anything he writes is well worth your time reading. One of my prized possessions is a picture of me taken with him at the Southern Kentucky Book Festival a few years back in Bowling Green, KY. Pat Conroy was the big draw back then, but soon it will be Rick pulling them in like that. A fine writer and a really sweet guy.

Lesa said...

KY Warrior Librarian - I'm with you. Rick is a very nice guy, and a wonderful writer.

Ron (Griff) Griffin said...

Thank you Rick for your writings. My people are like your people. You made me laugh, ponder, and cry.
It was GREAT.

Lesa said...

It was a book that touched home, and heart, wasn't it, Ron?

sage said...

This was a great book--I just finished listening to an unabridged audio version (read by Bragg) and I can honestly say that the only thing better than reading Bragg's writing, is listening to him read it!

Counting Caballeros said...

I realize that I am late to this party, but I just recently discovered your blog. I love Rick Bragg -- his first 3 books are amazing, he's from the area where my dad grew up, and he now teaches at my alma mater. However, William Greenleaf was my great, great grandfather. Much of the depiction of him in this book is not just misleading, it is flat out wrong. Upon reading the book, my father sent Mr. Bragg a letter letting him know that while he understands that the depiction of William Greenleaf was based solely on the tales that he heard as a child, none of them were true. Mr. Bragg never responded. I caution anyone reading these types of ancestoral stories not to take them as strict fact because I know first hand that they are not.