The story of a man who could charm a bird off a wire, beat the tar out of a threat, dandle a baby, tend a still, and smile—no, live—right through the meanest poverty the South could throw at him, from New York Times reporter and Pulitzer-winner Bragg (All Over But the Shoutin’, 1996, etc.).
Bragg’s grandfather, Charlie Bundrum, died a year before Bragg was born, so the author “built him up from dirt level, using half-forgotten sayings, half-remembered stories, and a few yellowed, brittle, black-and-white photographs.” Speaking in a lovely southern voice out of northern Georgia and Alabama, with a juke in its bones and metaphors to die for, Bragg brings not just Charlie but an entire time and place to life. Charlie was the son of another piece of work, a man who “largely disregarded any laws or influence outside his own will, and some people did not like to look him dead in the eye because it made them feel weak.” No stranger to a dust-up himself, Charlie would take the law down a notch if it was too mettlesome, but he had a softer side—one that would play a white-hot banjo, buck-dance under the stars (and under the influence of his own good white whisky, which made him sing rather than cuss), and offer a helping hand whenever the need arose. Most important of Charlie’s virtues, from the author’s point of view, was the fact that “if he ever was good at one thing on this earth, it was being a daddy.” Searching for work (sometimes, just for food), he’d move his family about the wild and dangerous South, a landscape of ridges and hollows and deep woods, ramshackle houses, muddy rivers, water moccasins, primeval catfish (which he caught from a boat made of two car hoods welded together)—but he knew how to make his family feel secure and loved.
A book that flashes with affection and respect for Charlie and the vanishing culture he represents, one we will be immensely the poorer for losing.