Blue Collar Hero

A black washerwoman gives her life savings to a local college. In a prison for the old and infirm, a man suffers from Huntington's disease. "He was a kidnapper, but now he has trouble holding a spoon," New York Times reporter Rick Bragg writes in an article that helped him win a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. But Bragg saved his best stories for All Over but the Shoutin' (Pantheon), a tenderly written memoir about growing up dirt-poor in Possum Trot, Alabama, where his mother supported three sons by picking cotton.

"I say in the book that I climbed up her backbone," Bragg, age 38, says from his home in Atlanta. Next week he'll be in Fort Lauderdale for the tenth annual Night of Literary Feasts and Day of Literary Lectures presented by the Broward Public Library Foundation. As one of 22 authors participating in panel discussions, he'll attempt to explain the significance of his memoir.

"The book is largely about the South," he says. "I don't know: Maybe it shows that there are blue-collar people that can suddenly be at the table with people who aren't blue-collar."

As a kid Bragg couldn't bring much to the table. His father, a Korean War vet, was an abusive alcoholic who eventually left town. So his mother picked cotton and ironed shirts, often skipping meals to make sure her sons could eat. Bragg did well enough in school to get into a feature-writing class at Jackson State University, where his teacher encouraged him to become a journalist.

Jobs at several newspapers followed, including a two-year stint as Miami bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times. After a two-year fellowship at Harvard, he was hired by the New York Times in 1994. His best stories feature down-and-outers.

"I'm good at reporting on people in trouble," he says. "They know I'm not a snob -- immediately."

Oseola McCarty wasn't exactly in trouble when Bragg wrote about her in 1995. The 88-year-old washerwoman, who had given her $150,000 life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi, was being lavished with humanitarian awards and praise from celebrities. But, with an eye for detail and a talent for heartfelt prose, Bragg captured the woman who, he writes, "had lived by herself since 1967, between rows of hanging clothes."

It's perhaps no coincidence that Bragg's mother, now age 62, resembles McCarty. Hers, too, is a happy ending. Now living in a house bought with Bragg's book money, she no longer has to work full-time.

"Mostly," he says, "she just enjoys sitting there in her house, up on her hill."

-- Rich Shea

Night of Literary Feasts begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 6, in various Fort Lauderdale homes. Tickets costs $150 and benefit the Broward Public Library. Call 954-357-7381. The lectures begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 7, at the Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Ave., and Republic Cafe, 200 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Admission is free, but tickets are required. Call 954-357-5960.

 
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