Ava’s Man by Rick Bragg

Alfred A. Knopf 2001258 pp. 25.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 

            Rick Bragg has produced a follow up to his well received story about his impoverished mother, All Over But the Shoutin’  (1998).  Ava’s Man, a biography, a family memoir, and an exemplary local history, traces the life of a his grandfather, a hard-drinking, peripatetic poor boy whose name remains a legend among the surviving locals in the Appalachian hollers he frequented. 

            Bragg’s grandfather, Charlie Bundrum, was descended from the Huguenots.  Emigrating to America in the early 1700s, his forebears followed a circuitous route to become among the first settlers in the Appalachian foothills.  Charlie himself became “a carpenter, roofer, whiskey maker, sawmill hand, well digger, hunter, poacher and river man, born at the turn of the century in a part of the country that is either Alabama or Georgia, depending on how lost you are, or if you even care.”

            Charlie married fifteen-year-old Ava, whose hard life became even harder in Charlie’s wobbly orbit.  “But Ava was not one of those Southern women who could afford life as an eccentric victim of circumstance. She did not sit on the veranda waiting for the vapors.” 

            Although poor, taciturn, and proud, Charlie didn’t neglect Ava; from 1925 to 1944 Ava had nine children, eight of whom survived, mostly on cornbread, milk, and the occasional egg.  Charlie himself added one more staple to his own diet, “likker,” that also helped provide for his family.   “Charlie could swing his hammer all day and not make a ten doIlar bill, but he could run off a gallon of white whiskey and make fifteen dollars a jug.”

            Their life gradually improved, and Charlie took a job in town, only to be hit with the most important event of that generation, the Depression.   The relentless search for work caused the already restless Charlie to move the family constantly.  “In the decade of the Depression, they moved twenty-one times.”

            The illiterate Appalachian poor have fallen though history’s cracks.  But, as Bragg notes, “just because a man works in overalls, or a woman takes a dip of snuff in the evening, that does not mean they do not hold to traditions.  Just as a story passed down through the generations is as precious, as valuable, as bone china, the things we do just because our kin did them are as sacred to us as anything passed along by the gentry.”

Hence, we should understand the author’s impulse, to preserve a South that is about to be lost, “a South of mills that will never reopen, of fields that will never be planted again, of train tracks that are being turned into bicycle trails.”  For Bragg, “in the new, true South, it is harder to be poor and proud, harder to work your way into an unapologetic, hard-eyed independence.”

Despite this laudable aim, Bragg’s book is problematic, ironically, in its choice of subject.  Charlie Bundrum is an exemplary figure who embodies a lost South.  However, Bragg’s fondness for his family gets in the way of his storytelling.  While admittedly presenting his grandfather’s behavioral warts for all to view, Bragg just can’t get over how wonderful the old whiskey-soaked knucklehead was.  To this reader, Bundrum often comes across as one of those Deliverance guys, remembered fondly by his grandson.

Bragg’s prose, which deftly evokes the speech patterns of his uneducated relatives, is a matter of taste.  You’ll either love the corn-pone, down-home authenticity of it all, or it will commence to grate, in particular the continual lunge toward the picturesque simile.  In two pages, for example, we read of someone “neat as a widow’s closet,” a boy who “remembers his granddad sharp and clear, like a broken bottle,” a man possessed of “fury [that] rode his shoulder like a parrot,” and another whose “temper was hot as bird’s blood.” 

Dead at 51 from liver disease, brought about by the white lightning he brewed, Charlie Bundrum is a vivid presence on the page.  For Bragg, Ava’s man remains “the last bridge between those old, wiId days on the river and this more civilized time."