Our May book was Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin' because we'd been throwing around the idea of reading a memoir for some months, but we were holding out for just the right memoir. I think that Bragg's story fits the bill perfectly for a number of reasons. First, Bragg devotes a good portion of his story to life in the changing South of the 1960s, and while in 2008 we may not all be able to relate to his family's story, there are certain elements, stereotypical or not, of the South that resonate today. Bragg also explores intense family dynamic issues that are not limited to a particular time or place, and if per chance we haven't experienced these struggles ourselves, we only have to open our doors and look to our own communities to find similar stories of personal hardships and struggles.
In our discussion, we explored a couple of distinct themes both in terms of how they relate to the book and to life today. The first theme was that of the person who leaves home to seek his/her fortune or way in the world. This theme traces back to epic stories in which the hero must leave home and encounter the challenges of the world in order to learn something about himself. Bragg, through what he essentially calls his own dumb luck, embraces this epic theme by leaving rural Alabama for the scenes of his stories that projected him to role of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. We then explored the similarities of this leaving home saga with those found in A Lesson Before Dying, our February book. In this novel, the protagonist, Grant Wiggins, has left the African American "quarter" to gain an education, but he has returned in the role of school master for the children of his community. An point of consideration when comparing these two texts is the idea of hope and who has hope. In A Lesson Before Dying, Grant dreams of leaving "the quarter" but is held back because he knows that the community has pinned all their hopes on him. Bragg, in leaving his corner of the South, leaves behind a family who has also pinned their hopes upon him. Both Grant and Bragg are the ones who have been given the opportunity, through the sacrifices of others, to serve as a representative of their community to a world that deals largely in stereotypes.
Another theme that brought about much discussion was that of religion. There is a reason the South is nicknamed the Bible Belt. Faith and church are still afforded a large measure of attention today, evidenced by the fact that many community and school activities are never scheduled on Wednesdays because that's church night. The question becomes what is it that allows some people to have faith, even those in the most dire of circumstances, while its comforting hand seems to pass over others. Bragg in not so many words poses this question himself when he recounts his experiences with church as a young boy. He states that he sat in the pew week after week and waited for that hand to touch him in the way he saw it touch those around him; yet, it never did. Another similar example is provided in Bragg's recounting a story about his brother Mark. In one of his many attempts to evade the law, he ducked into a church and was so heartily welcomed by the congregation that he kept going for two years. While Bragg never presumes to speak for his brother, the reader cannot help but wonder if Mark, like Bragg, kept going because he was looking for that consuming faith he saw in others. Interestingly, the character with the most unshakable faith of all is arguably the one who has perhaps the greatest right to question a God who allowed such suffering to touch her life, Mrs. Margaret Bragg. Despite the hardships she faced in her life, Bragg paints a touchingly vivid image of her standing in their little house, her hand pressed to the top of the TV, as the televangelist on the screen prayed. Perhaps she, like so many others of various religions and denominations, clung to her faith because it was all she had.