For this assignment, I chose to read Rick Bragg's Somebody Told Me. This is a collection of news articles he has written, most (if not all) dating from 1995-2000. There are often several articles that deal with the same incident or issue and are broken down accordingly into sections. For example, one entire section of the book is devoted to the proceedings surrounding a woman who was carjacked with her two toddler-aged sons in the backseat. Bragg's articles follow the search for the man, the car, and the boys, and continues to follow as the story unfolds into the mother confessing that she let the car go into the lake with the boys strapped in the backseat. One large section also deals with the Oklahoma City bombing, finding the man responsible, the lives it touched, and then following the trial proceedings.
I chose this book superficially- my sister loved Bragg's book All Over But the Shoutin' and I never gave it half a chance. When I saw that a book on the list for this class was by Bragg, I felt like I could redeem myself and Bragg's writing by reading.
There is not a traditional plot line to this story. Because the entire book is a collection of news stories, there are common threads and subjects but not one coherent plot. One common characteristic of the book is sadness; it's hard to put this book down and feel uplifted and happy. Out of the 15 individual sections of the book, there are four that share stories of fun, tradition, or triumph. The remainder are heart-wrenching, I-can't-believe-this-stuff-really-happens stories. Some stories and areas that hit me the hardest included the section about children and violence in schools ('Schoolyards') as well as the stories "The Story of Dirty Red" about a child falsely accused of sexual assault and "Living with a Grief That Will Never Die" about a man that lost his sister and wife in separate bizarre episodes of murder.
Bragg relies heavily on his details and sources to really draw readers into a story. He often begins with a soft news lead that takes note of things that few people would recognize and most often uses the lead to characterize the people in the story. He also uses this strategy with places, pointing out one thing that makes that particular place or that place at that time unique. In the same way, Bragg closes with detail or a clinching quote to drive home the intended affect on the audience. To incorporate an element, Bragg uses specificity of concrete detail as one of his strongest points of writing.
Bragg writes hard news stories from soft news angles, so he is limited with the amount of subjective arrangement he can use (although he does introduce people first and appeals to the humanity of the subjects and readers then fleshes out the inhumane treatment or problem, often pushing readers to one side or another) and uses the third person perspective to relate each story.
Scene by scene construction is used wisely. There were plenty of times when Bragg could have been very specific and detailed in the way a murder was conducted or the terrible pains a person went through. But most often, he doesn't draw out these details so much as he focuses on the present- how people are feeling now, how the victim is reacting now, the way they lock their doors at night or won't go outside because of how the news story events have changed them. He skips the malicious details and lingers on the things that show rather than tell his point.
Although this really isn't a new element for our literary journalism list, I feel that Bragg's strongest point is personal detail. He brings stories to life because of the people that he interviews and the attention he pays to qualities of those people. Often, I would question why pieces were put in a story, such as some context detail about what someone is drinking or that they are sitting in the dark in the interview or the types of toys children played with. But as I continued reading, I realized he included this to let his readers get a better sense of what these people are feeling and so the audience can know the subject better. And I got a better understanding of where each person was in their recovery or story.
Rick Bragg was born in Alabama and grew up near Jacksonville, Fla. He joined the New York Times in 1994 but became a kind of national correspondent. Most of his stories cover the south east, even reaching over into Texas. His experience includes writing for the St. Petersburg Times, the Los Angeles Times, and several smaller papers in Alabama. Since the publication of this book in 2000, Bragg won a Pulitzer prize for his articles about Elian Gonzalez. Bragg now works as a writing professor at the University of Alabama. http://www.bookbrowse.com/biographies/index.cfm?author_number=77
Question: Does the subject matter of Bragg's writing (most oftentimes death and sadness) make him the writer he is? Would he be as powerful if he wrote about happier times, places, and people?