My criteria for a really good book is usually whether I’m inclined to read it more than once. I’ve either completely or partially read “Ava’s Man” by Rick Bragg about four or five times. It has a permanent place on my bookshelf, and I’m glad to loan it out, but only to people who I think will bring it back. I would miss it if it were gone.
“Ava’s Man” is a follow-up to Bragg’s critically acclaimed “All Over But the Shoutin’,” which was also excellent. Both are memoirs. “Shoutin'” was Bragg’s gift to his mother, and is a story about her gritty and determined fight to raise three sons out of severe poverty in Alabama. “Ava’s Man” goes back a generation, and Bragg specifies in the prologue that its genesis was actually readers of “Shoutin’,” who wanted to know from where he thought his momma got her strength and heart. The answer is this book, a seamlessly assembled collection of stories and remembrances about Bragg’s maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum, who died a year before he was born, and grandmother, Ava, a spitfire woman with a steel backbone. Charlie and Ava raised seven kids in Alabama and Georgia through hard times that would’ve broken lesser people, and the color and honesty in the stories Bragg tells about his maternal grandparents is vibrant and uniquely Southern (if you’re from the South, or have southern roots, there will be much that resonates for you here).
Bragg is a very gifted storyteller. He knows how to use words, not too many, not too flowery, but very well-chosen. You can almost get a fully formed picture of a person in a few of his sentences, he’s that good. Some example passages:
“She was old all my life. Even when I was sitting in the red dirt, fascinated with my own toes, Ava’s face had a line in it for every hot mile she ever walked, for every fit she ever threw. Her hair was long and black as crows, streaked with white, and her eyes, behind the ancient, yellowed glass of her round spectacles, were pale, pale blue, almost silver. The blind have eyes like that, that color, but Ava could see fine. Ava could see forever.”
“He was a tall, bone-thin man who worked with nails in his teeth and a roofing hatchet in a fist as hard as Augusta brick…He was a man whose tender heart was stitched together with steel wire, who stood beaten and numb over a baby’s grave in Georgia, then took a simple man into his home to protect him from scoundrels who liked to beat him for fun. He was a man who inspired backwoods legend and the kind of loyalty that still makes old men dip their heads respectfully when they say his name, but who was bad to drink too much, miss his turn into the driveway and run over his own mailbox.”
“But he is so much more precious smelling of hot cornbread and whiskey than milk and honey. His story is more important knowing how the moonshine made him sing instead of cuss, knowing how he did fight, with bared teeth and blood in his eye, the people who insulted him or brought trouble to his door. He is more beloved because he truly did ride into their yard late in the evenings, passed out cold on the back of his saddle horse, Bob, who would gently shrug him to the grass before trotting into his stall.”
“She was not a city girl. Ava had been raised with a hoe in her hand, swatting at sweat bees, and she had stood on the fence and gazed unblinking when her daddy entered their hogpen with a .22 rifle and a razor-sharp butcher knife. But the place Charlie took her to was not safe and solid country living the way she had known it.”
“Monsters lived here. Fat water moccasins coiled around the lower branches, thick as a man’s arm. Snapping turtles, as big around as a car tire with jaws strong enough to snap a broomstick in two, lurked in the deep, dark holes. Just under the river’s surface, primeval catfish, four feet long, hung suspended in that translucent water as their whiskers, like snakes clinging to their jaws, undulated in the slow current.”
See, how can you resist a book full of richness like that? I couldn’t, even on the third, fourth or fifth time, and as I look at the book now, I know there will have to be a sixth.