I’ve read All Over But the Shoutin’. I’ve read Ava’s Man. And now I have read The Prince of Frogtown, the most recent book Rick Bragg has written about his family and childhood in the rural Deep South. I am heartily glad he has continued to write these personal books, because he has gotten so much better.
This particular book is about the life of his father, Charles Bragg, who was a charming but somewhat feckless man. A veteran who was scarred by the Korean War, Charles changed, going from a man who was sweet toward his children and wife into an alcoholic who frightened and abandoned them.
Bragg writes with frankness about his father, having to learn much about him from other people — his mother, his relatives, and men who were Charles’ friends. Due to the fact that Bragg had relatively little information, I think he did a better job writing about him in a dispassionate manner. He is able to reflect upon his father’s actions and see the mistakes as clearly as the endearing things he did. He was forced to contemplate his father in a way he did not have to do with his mother and his maternal grandfather, respectively, in his previous two books.
The big thing that makes The Prince of Frogtown special, however, are the corresponding stories about his relationship with his stepson. They are funny, they are sad, they are frustrating, embarrassing, and very real. In those stories, with Bragg’s struggle to understand a child whose background is so different from his own so apparent, and his wish to be able to shape and guide him without having an adequate model for being a father, is strikingly apparent. Their relationship is a good one, but is one that needed much guiding and instruction from Bragg’s wife and his stepson.
This was the part that pulled on me the most. I’ve read three books by him now; this is the first time I have felt compassion for him. I rue that he did not have a father who was a model of good parenting, someone like his grandfather Bundrum. I could say that the reason this book is the best of the three is that the voice is clearer, without the at-times cloying spelling and hokey colloquialisms that would pop up in the narration of the two previous books, but it’s more than that. For the first time, Bragg trusts us and bares some of his soul to us. This makes him more human than either of the other two books did, where he kept the reader at arm’s length by using uncomfortable language and never letting us see his personal life in a meaningful way.
I loved that he’s let us in. Let us hope that he has more to show us in the future.