A Review of Rick Bragg’s Somebody Told Me. New York: Vintage Books, 2000
I was seven weeks pregnant, and I was reading about teenagers who kill people with guns. The fears and insecurities I had of bringing a baby into this suffering world were magnified by each horrifying story I read in Rick Bragg’s “Schoolyard” section of his collection of newspaper stories, Somebody Told Me.This is not fiction. It is real. And Bragg has a way of penetrating each story to probe at the heart of just what is going on and what is at stake.
That, though, is what makes Bragg a top-notch journalist, a writer I only wish I could emulate in the human interest pieces I have dug up with my own pen and notebook over the years. While many of his stories are vivid illustrations of pain and suffering in the real world, the bigger truth about Bragg’s writing is that he so adequately paints the struggles and joys of ordinary individuals.
I first heard of Bragg and his book from a small-town newspaper editor I worked for in Frankfort, IN. The editor lent me her copy of the book, praising it as superb journalism. Several weeks later, I had finished the book, and my own writing was noticeably stronger. I wrote with much more authority and stepped out of the canned reportage I had become so used to, tightly packing more details into sentences and boldly portraying the emotions of the people I interviewed. Bragg had inspired me to dig deeper, and to seek out the details in the stories that truly mattered. He showed me it was okay to infuse passion into journalism, to make others give a rip about the world around them, as he had done (1).
As I read the book a second time, as a graduate student and aspiring freelance writer rather than as a journalist for a small daily newspaper, I found myself asking similar questions as I did the first time around, only this time probing deeper. I think about things like how Bragg finds his subjects to interview, how he establishes trust with his interview subjects, and how he effectively communicates a whole story so passionately yet keeps himself removed from it. How, for example, does he come across an office worker at Mount Olive Baptist Church for insight into the KKK march in Jasper, Texas (197)?
I pay more attention to the beginnings, asking how and why they suck me into the story. “Maybe it will unfold this way,” he begins “A Sugar Bowl Lacking a Certain Sweetness” (135).
The story, “Emotional March Gains a Repenttant Wallace” begins this way: “The marchers swarmed around the old man in the wheelchair, some to tell him he was forgiven, some to whisper that he could never be forgiven, not today, not a million years from now” (140). Beginnings like these hurl me into stories where I realize I could just as easily be a character as any of the faces Bragg comes across.
At the same time, I find myself asking what these stories are really about. The piece, “Tried By Deadly tornado, An Anchor of Faith Holds,” (4-8) is not about a big tornado that ripped through a small Alabama town; it’s a story that chronicles how ordinary people suffer and shoulder each others’ pain in the face of an inevitable tragedy.
“Inmates Find Brief Escape in Rodeo Ring” (28-32) is not about prison inmates who ride bucking bulls in front of a bunch of spectators; it’s about hardened men who long for an escape, who do not feel they are being sacrificed or exploited for the enjoyment of a crowd (30). Bragg spends the time he needs to get to know the fabric of each character and how they are molded by their situations. In a sense, he makes himself one of them in order to most effectively communicate the story.
*Read Part II of this review on Thursday, April 5. Until then, happy reading, and cheers to digging up and living your own stories.