Narrative Therapy: All Over But the Shoutin'


The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin', a haunting memoir about growing up dirt-poor in the deep South, and about struggling to leave the past behind while still deeply tied to it through bonds of love and responsibility.

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ALL Over But The Shoutin by RIck Braggs …

My mother and father were born in the most beautiful place on earth, in the foothills of the Appalachians along the Alabama-Georgia line. It was a place where gray mists hid the tops of low, deep-green mountains, where redbone and bluetick hounds flashed through the pines as they chased possums into the sacks of old men in frayed overalls, where old women in bonnets dipped Bruton snuff and hummed "Faded Love and Winter Roses" as they shelled purple hulls, canned peaches and made biscuits too good for this world. It was a place where playing the church piano loud was near as important as playing it right, where fearless young men steered long, black Buicks loaded with yellow whiskey down roads the color of dried blood, where the first frost meant hog killin' time and the mouthwatering smell of cracklin's would drift for acres from giant, bubbling pots. It was a place where the screams of panthers, like a woman's anguished cry, still haunted the most remote ridges and hollows in the dead of night, where children believed they could choke off the cries of night birds by circling one wrist with a thumb and forefinger and squeezing tight, and where the cotton blew off the wagons and hung like scraps of cloud in the branches of trees.

It was about 120 miles west of Atlanta, about 100 miles east of Birmingham, close to nothin' but that dull red ground. Life here between the meandering dirt roads and skinny blacktop was full, rich, original and real, but harsh, hard, mean as a damn snake. My parents grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in the poor, upland South, a million miles from the Mississippi Delta and the Black Belt and the jasmine-scented verandas of what most people came to know as the Old South. My ancestors never saw a mint julep, but they sipped five-day-old likker out of ceramic jugs and Bell jars until they could not remember their Christian names.

Men paid for their plain-plank houses and a few acres of land by sawing and hand-lifting pulpwood onto ragged trucks for pennies a ton. They worked in the blast furnace heat of the pipe shops, loaded boxcars at the clay pits and tended the nerve gas stockpiles at the army base, carrying caged birds to test for leaks. They coaxed crops to grow in the up-country clay that no amount of fertilizer would ever turn into rich bottomland, tried in vain to keep their fingers, hands and arms out of the hungry machinery of the cotton mills, so that the first thing you thought when you saw an empty sleeve was not war, but the threshing racks. The summers withered the cotton and corn and the tornado season lasted ten months, making splinters out of their barns, twisting the tin off their roofs, yanking their tombstones out of the ground. Their women worked themselves to death, their mules succumbed to worms and their children were crippled by rickets and perished from fever, but every Sunday morning The Word leaked out of little white-wood sanctuaries where preachers thrust ragged Bibles at the rafters and promised them that while sickness and poverty and Lucifer might take their families, the soul of man never dies.

White people had it hard and black people had it harder than that, because what are the table scraps of nothing? This was not the genteel and parochial South, where monied whites felt they owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather. No one I knew ever had a mammy. This was two separate states, both wanting and desperate, kept separate by hard men who hid their faces under hoods and their deeds under some twisted interpretation of the Bible, and kicked the living shit out of anyone who thought it should be different. Even into my own youth, the orange fires of shacks and crosses lit up the evening sky. It seems a cliché now, to see it on movie screens. At the time, it burned my eyes.

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Rick Bragg was born in the pinewoods of Alabama to a mean-tempered, hard-drinking father and a strong-willed, loving mother, who struggled to protect her sons from the effects of poverty and ignorance that had constricted her own life. After years of abusing his wife and children, Charles Bragg abandoned the family when Rick was six. Margaret Bragg moved her three sons into her parents' house, going eighteen years without a new dress so that her children could have school clothes and working in the cotton fields so that they
wouldn't have to live on welfare alone. Brash and wild like his father, Rick graduated from high school, seemingly destined for either the cotton mills or the penitentiary. Instead, he signed up for a journalism class at a nearby college and before long was offered a job as a sportswriter for the local paper. From there, he moved from small papers in northeast Alabama to The St. Petersburg Times and eventually became a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times.

All Over but the Shoutin' is the moving account of one man's determination to rewrite his family history and to carve out a life for himself based on the strength of his mother's encouragement and belief. Written with refreshing honesty and marvelous humor, it paints an unforgettable picture of the love and suffering that lie at the heart of every family.

All Over but the Shoutin
Rick Bragg, All Over But the Shoutin' (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 329pp

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