Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Most They Ever Had by Rick Bragg

Addendum: this book report was originally written in 2010, but in 2014 I changed the color on the quotes so they would stand out better, and the whole post came up as being published inn 2014.

11. The Most They Ever Had
by Rick Bragg
nonfiction, 2009
finished, 2/23/10

Outsiders like to talk about the working people of the Deep South in clich├ęs, like to say their lives are consumed by football, stock car racing, stump jumping, and a whole lot of violent history. But it is work that defines them. You hear it under every shade tree, at every dinner on the ground, whole conversations about timber cut, post holes dug, transmissions pulled.
I don't live in the Deep South. I live in the far North and I can honestly say this is how it is up here too among the working people. My father didn't have any hobbies. He didn't fish or hunt or bowl. He loved the Red Sox but he lived in the time of day games, so the voice of Curt Gowdy accompanied him as he drove or as he sold cars at his Pontiac garage. When he got together with others, he mostly talked about either his work or those long-suffering Sox. He didn't work with his hands, but he was still a 'working man.' In my life I've known many, many people like him; men and women whose work is the heart of their lives.

Rick Bragg is the chronicler of these people. He is the literary spokesman for a group of people who rarely write about themselves. He shares their stories with both readers who know them, and readers who don't. His first three books were specific in their topics, each of them about a family member. In The Most They Ever Had he writes more generally about the people who worked in the textile mills of the South. He tells us what their working lives were like, and how they felt about those lives being taken away forever with the closing of these mills.

It wasn't the conditions in the mills or the low pay that scared the workers; it was the fear of losing those dangerous, low paying jobs if the mills closed. It is very difficult for those of us on the outside to understand. How does a worker live with this?
The machines snatched the hair from some people's heads, ripped the clothes off bodies, and did worse...
Others perished more slowly, choking on the cotton they breathed in the unventilated, oven-like rooms.
How they bear it, and why they bear it is the story Rick Bragg tells us. As time went on conditions got better.
In time, they worked not just for subsistence, but for one of the best blue collar paychecks in their foothills. The modern-day workers, whose ancestors labored to stave off deprivation, made ten dollars an hour, eleven dollars, more, and bought modest houses, bass boats, and above-ground swimming pools. The mill here, like others around the country, became safer, cleaner, better ventilated. A job that had once carried a social stigma - lintheads, people called them - now carried a rock-solid respectability. And the thing the mill workers never could explain to better-off people was, it always had.
But human dignity, in a global economy, is just one more cost to cut. Long before the economic meltdown of 2008, the age of the textile worker was coming to an end.
In 1991, an American trade journal ran this advertisement:
Rosa Martinez produces apparel for U.S. markets on her sewing machine in El Salvador. You can hire her for thirty-three cents an hour.
As I look around at the tags on various items in my life, I find that my flannel shirt from LL Bean was made in El Salvador; my bathroom towels were made in India and in Turkey; my Reebok shoes were made in China; my car was made in Germany; my Nikon camera was made in Thailand. In my brief survey, the only thing I could find which was made in the USA were my Fiesta Ware dishes.

It didn't used to be like this. Most of our cars were made here. Our cameras were made in Rochester, NY by the Eastman Kodak company. And our cottons, our sheets and towels and underwear were made in the American South, in the mills which Rick Bragg writes about in this book. These workers took pride in what they did with their hands. Not just mill jobs are being lost, but so many 'little' jobs which took human skill and talent. There used to be a shoe repair place in town, but it has sat empty since the owner died because no one wanted to take it over. There used to be seamstresses but I don't believe there are any in the area now. If the zipper breaks, we throw the coat away or use it without zipping it up. If the sole of the shoe wears out, we get new shoes. I've heard there is a lack of plumbers and electricians. What happened to the basic jobs of life? The common, everyday needs that must be met?
"It's got to the point, my brother Sam said, "that the only thing we make in this country is money."
Maggie wrote a terrific review of a book on this subject: Shop Class as Soulcraft.

In his acknowledgements, Rick Bragg says about writing this book:
It began more than seven years ago, and for a slim volume has taken up more work, more time, than anything I have ever done.

Each chapter tells a story of a separate life, though the sufferings they endured do run together across the pages. They are grim in many places and sad in the spaces in between, but when I told that to a friend, worried that no one would stick with such a book cover to cover, he told me not to worry. "Well, it ain't a damn barn dance, is it? It's an American tragedy."
Rick Bragg wanted to get it right. He wanted to be sure he told their stories, and that he gave these people the homage they deserve. I think he succeeded. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Rick Bragg is one of the best writers in the world, past or present or future. And the interesting thing to me is that he writes nonfiction. He brings poetry to truth. This book isn't cheery but it is uplifting. The reader does not feel sorry for these people. Rick Bragg has told their story and given them the dignity they deserve. I don't believe anyone could have done it better.

Another book report on a Rick Bragg book at Letters from a Hill Farm here.


  1. a lovely review of a book i hope to read soon.

    thank you.

    we are from the south but spent 4 years in
    new hampshire, which we loved.

    the new englanders did think we were
    neanderthals, however. :)

  2. Thanks for stopping by. I'll tell you - there are people within New England who speak of one another as such. :<) One state looks down on another, and even one part of a state looks down on another part!

  3. Wonderful review. I'd like to read this one.
    You mentioned Kodak in Rochester, well, my husband's family is from Rochester and his Grandfather worked at Kodak his entire adult life.

  4. Gosh I'm glad to hear Rick Bragg has a new book out. He is really one of the finest in the world of books. I've had the pleasure of reading his books and meeting him as well (he's a ready and willing participant each year in the Decatur Book Festival), and I can truly say that he is one of Alabama's finest (one can't use that word too often when describing Rick) good ole boys, one of those who would give you the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it, and the like. Although I have longed for a good book of fiction from him, his non-fiction books about family and people of the South surely have more life and lore in them--he's just a tell it like it is kind of guy.

  5. 'Nothin' I own is US made, We don't make nothin' here no more'

    Bob Dylan but I can't remember the song title!

  6. I'm excited to read the book. I am taking a group of teachers to Alabama this summer on a history institute. Last summer we explored Lowell. It will be interesting to compare. I've been doing a huge southern literature read, but missed Rick Bragg. Thanks!

  7. This sounds good, Nan.

    One of the saddest songs in Studs Terkel's Working is that of the Mill Worker; here are the last stanzas:

    (Yeah), but it's my life has been wasted
    And I have been the fool
    To let this manufacturer
    Use my body for a tool
    (I'll) ride home every evening
    Staring at my hands
    Swearing to my sorrow that a young girl
    Ought to stand a better chance

    So may I work your mills just as long as I am able
    And never meet the man whose name is on the label

    (it's still)me and my machine
    For the rest of the morning
    And the rest of the afternoon (and on and on and on...)
    for the rest of my life

  8. Interesting review and a really fascinating window on America for me.... thank for sharing, hannah

  9. Jeanette, thanks for telling me about the Kodak connection. I wonder what's going on there now.

    My Two Cents Worth, thank you for your words about Rick B. I so envy you seeing him in person!

    Call me madam, perfect!

    Sarah, what an exciting adventure! And the Lowell one as well. I'm sure you've read Katherine Paterson's books, Lyddie and Bread and Roses, Too - as well as Elizabeth Winthrop's Counting on Grace. Those books were excellent, and Bragg's makes up the quartet as far as I'm concerned.

    Jenclair, thank you so much! I've not read the book or heard that song. They give me chills.

    Hannah, thank you. It is an excellent book as are his others.

  10. Can I just say that you write the most eloquent book reviews I have ever read! I am so pleased you enjoyed this book so well. I wish you could get the opportunity to meet Rick Bragg some day. Not that I ever have, but I think it would be such a thrill for you to meet him. I also think you should find his email address and send him this review. I believe he would be deeply moved by your kind words, Miss Nan.

  11. Oh my gosh, Les, what a wonderful thing to say! Thank you! I feel like I know him already. He feels like a relative.

  12. This is so interesting Nan, as by replacing a few place names you could be talking about the cotton mills in the north of England. Most of our stuff now also comes from China, but I there is a slight turning of the tide, and factories are again returning to Britain, where they can now justify the higher wages by making upmarket goods, where quality control needs to be very high. I hope the same thing is happening in America.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I am pleased to hear some good news like this!

    2. Michelle Anne beat me to it in her comments. Cobblers, key cutters, seamstresses, car body repairers..... nearly all gone because we have learned to live in a throwaway society, and not be our own devices, either. Things made in third world countries are so cheap, and in the case of electrical goods cannot easily be repaired anyway - and who did we teach in the last generation to actually do the repairs?! Cobblers? when a pair of shoes is cheaper than the repair, why get them repaired? Car body repairs? insurance companies just want to "write off" the car, even if it's worth employing a panel beater to deal with the crushed area. And all of this started by the greed of those who owned those factories and shops...... " we can make much higher profits if we......". Sadly, we were all tarred with the same brush then, for we demanded higher interest rates on our savings, and........ Well, I know the answer to that last one, as our private pension paid out well, but the last 10 years of the savings plan was mostly invested in China. Thanks so much, Nan, for the little gremlin in the works that brought this to my attention. We are travelling the Carolinas in May this year, and I will look out for that book on your recommendation.

    3. Very eloquently written. There are so many levels to this whole situation. I'm a simple soul, and don't get it all, but am pleased about the towels.

  13. I'm glad your computer reposted this so that I could read it. There is a quote we used to use in Career Ed and Tech that goes something like this "A society that values good philosophy more than good plumbing will have neither." Bill taught Industrial Arts and Technology classes and we mourn that those subjects have been nearly eliminated. Not only because many kids learn better in a hands-on situation, but also because if it doesn't change we soon will not have anyone to do those vital jobs. (But it probably will change -- things seem to go in circles.) And I am going to look up Rick Bragg's book (this one)...

    1. If you click on the authors tab under the blog header pic, you can read about other RB books. He is just the best.
      There is more talk now about how not everyone needs to go to college, and that there are practical jobs that need doing. The whole apprenticeship notion is a good one. Work with a plumber and learn how to do all the jobs.

  14. I actually have not heard of this author before even though he has a Pulitzer - did you know him from his NYT work first? And someone posted the lyrics of the Millworker song, which I hadn't remembered was from Studs Terkel's Working. I have it on a James Taylor Live CD and that's where I know it from.

    1. I first heard of him with his first book, and I've read every book since. He has a Facebook page:
      Wonderful, wonderful writer.


I'll answer your comments as soon as I possibly can. Please do come back if you've asked a question.
Also, you may comment on any post, no matter how old, and I will see it.