This is Pulitzer Prize winning Rick Bragg’s third memoir. The first, All Over But the Shoutin’, was written in praise of his mother who mostly raised Bragg and his two brothers on her own, and especially during the difficult and painful times his father chose to be a part of their lives. His second memoir, Ava’s Man, was written as a paean to his father’s mother. Prince of Frogtown is not a book in praise of his father. How do you praise a mostly absent, often violent, and basically alcoholic father? What Bragg has written is a book in search of his father and, in the end, in search of fatherhood, itself.
In his prologue, Bragg asks one question and answers another:“I don’t know what kind of man I turned out to be, but I was good at being a boy.” As it turns out, Bragg remained a boy right into his adulthood, right up to the time (in his mid-forties) when he met a woman who turned his life upside down. She was a keeper and came with one young son still at home. Bragg began his journey to reclaim his father when he “got a boy of my own.”
Every chapter in the book has a section entitled, “The Boy.” It’s like a seed that gets watered with each chapter until Rick Bragg, his father, Charles Bragg, and his own “boy” are full-grown. The reader my wonder why Bragg never gave his stepson’s name as the title for these sections. The answer comes with a second look at the book’s prologue. Bragg’s own father never called him by name, or even, “son.” He was called, “boy.” Bragg explains: “It’s one of those words that bind you to someone strong as nylon cord, if you say it right.” The reader knows, even then, that Bragg’s father said it right.
Bragg, like his father before him, grew up in Jacksonville, a mill town in northeast Alabama. By the end of the book, we know the layout of this small southern town, on both sides of the tracks. We know its heroes, its villains, and its scoundrels. Charles Bragg was a bit of all of them and it is the telling of his story that captures the reader’s heart and attention. As Rick Bragg interviews his father’s friends, relatives and acquaintances, it reads like folktales come alive. He also brings to life the history of Alabamans who came down from the foothills of Appalachia to the mill towns that offered work under conditions just short of slavery. This is storytelling at its intimate and haunting best.
As Bragg opens himself to the presence of his stepson, he also opens himself to a more complete presence of his father. The worst of parents don’t need our forgiveness, but they need our understanding if we are to understand ourselves. Bragg comes to understand that his stepson wants only to be his son, just as he, himself, wanted to be his father’s son. His understanding unlocks the door to a powerful and enduring love.