by Jonathan Shipley
Family--it's all we are and all we really have at the end of the day. The people that make up your family can come and go quietly or they can explode into your life, and as the family history is passed on generation to generation, the stories become richer. My great (several times over) grandfather John Billington came over on the Mayflower, but he wasn't what you'd call a well-heeled Pilgrim. Honestly, he was a rapscallion, a ruffian, a scamp. He bothered Miles Standish to no end. His son nearly lit the Mayflower on fire, and his child also got lost in the woods and was taken care of for a short while by Indians. John shot and killed a man, was found guilty of murder, and is thought to be the first white man executed in the New World. Not exactly the upstanding Pilgrim we read about as kids, but he's family, and his story makes me smile every time I think of it. Rick Bragg, I'm sure, has a similar feeling when he thinks of his grandfather, who is celebrated in Bragg's newest memoir, Ava's Man.
Bragg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All Over but the Shoutin', a wonderful account of his mother, continues to look into his family history with the story of Charlie Bundrum, his mother's father. Charlie is a man you wish you could have been around when you were growing up. He was a man to admire, to follow to work as he roofed another house, a man to sneak looks at through the weeds as he checked his moonshine still, a man to hold hands with on the way back from catching catfish from a boat he made from car hoods.
The bulk of the story takes us back to the Great Depression in the Appalachian foothills. Charlie and his wife Ava raised seven children during the Depression, moving again and again trying to find work, trying to stay ahead of the poverty line. He made sure his kids never went to bed hungry, made sure they always had a roof over their head, and made sure they were safe, always. "Charlie had, in the tradition of his own daddy, been hard on his two boys, but they respected him. My daddy is a man,' they would always say when somebody said something about him, about his drinking, his sideline whiskey making, his raggedy overalls. They learned to be men by watching him, the good and the bad."
That's what Rick Bragg has done in this tribute to his grandfather--showed him in the light of day, the good parts and the bad. But Charlie Bundrum was mostly made of the good parts. Bragg, a wonderfully homey writer, like someone just having a conversation on paper over lemonade, brings a life to life, delivering immediacy to events that took place long ago. Like Frank McCourt and Willie Morris, Bragg is a writer who makes you want to tell your own stories--like the story of that rascal on the Mayflower.