Oh boy, does Rick Bragg have a colloquial and Whitmanesque way with words! The Most They Ever Had (MacAdam/Cage, 2009) is an oral history/meditation on the lives of those who worked in the Alabama cotton mills, a way of life fast disappearing due to the vagaries of our global economy. Bragg does a real service by capturing the stories of these proud workers, so many dying early due to the lung diseases so common among "lintheads." A few generations ago when cotton began to be harvested by machines, former cotton pickers marched into the cotton mills where they worked their fingers to the bone for pennies. Often they owed money to the company store for food. People did what they had to do to get by, picking up coal from the railroad tracks, eating frogs and weeds. I found myself thinking that this book should be mandatory reading for all Americans, perhaps most especially politicians.
The Most They Ever Had (not much) sings of red dirt and Johnson grass, front porches, baseball, hunger, want and pure despair. Taking the music analogy a little further, this literary treasure of a book is bluegrass, the blues and country music all rolled into one big elegiac hymn. The loud machines that ruled the mill workers' lives are silent now, the buildings in ruins. Bragg captures a lost era just in time; most of the people profiled are near the end of their lives. He worried that no one would want to read this. A friend told him not to worry, saying "Well, it ain't a damn barn dance, is it? It's an American tragedy." I am so deeply touched and humbled by what I read here. Thank you, Rick Bragg. Come to think of it, I feel the same way about every book he has written.