Ava’s Man Summary

Rick Bragg

Ava’s Man

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Ava’s Man Summary

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Ava’s Man is a 2001 nonfiction account of author Rick Bragg’s maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum. Bragg charts his grandfather’s life in the Appalachians during the downturn of the Great Depression. He was a man who worked any and every way he could, from bartering homemade whiskey to factory work at a steel mill to keep his growing family from starvation. In telling the story of his grandfather’s life, Bragg also tells the story of a certain segment of the working-class Deep South that is slowly vanishing. The book follows in the footsteps of Bragg’s previous book, All Over But the Shoutin’, a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his parents.

Bragg never met his maternal grandfather—Charlie Bundrum died two years before Bragg was born. Still, he reconstructs Charlie from family legend and the stories of anyone and everyone old enough to remember him. The resulting book was hard-won: when Bragg asked for stories, his friends and relatives found their memories too painful to relate. They revered Charlie, his sacrifices, and his perseverance.

His hard work never got him far ahead of the poverty line, and it would send him to an early grave while he was in his fifties. His occupation of choice was roofing, but there wasn’t enough work for him to pay the bills that way, so he picked up odd jobs, including ones that skirted the law. Charlie made moonshine whiskey on the side and sold it for a profit, though he always kept a pint out of every gallon for himself. A day’s hard labor netted ten dollars pay if he was lucky, but a mere gallon of moonshine was worth a full five dollars. He hid his still deep in a swamp, careful to circle around the spot slowly, rather than walk directly to it. Though sheriffs sometimes came close to catching him out, Charlie evaded conviction for breaking Prohibition.

Bragg describes his grandfather’s “selective morality,” believing that thieves were “real trash,” but having no trouble drinking that pint of “likker” all at once and maybe getting into a fistfight or two while drunk. He didn’t bother with obtaining proper licenses or paying government fees but would never have so much as picked up an apple off another man’s land. He had his own sense of what was right and what was wrong, what was just and what was unfair.

Charlie’s wife, the Ava of the title, was every bit as tough as he was. When Charlie allowed a “painted lady” to stay at the house, and she began to show sexual interest in Charlie, Ava beat the both of them and sent the woman packing. But when a neighbor heard the altercation and tried to pull a knife on Charlie in Ava’s defense, she threw herself in front of her husband to protect him. Charlie couldn’t read, but Ava could, and he asked her to read the paper to him every day, so his illiteracy wouldn’t make him ignorant.

Bragg describes his grandfather as “more man than most ever get, a tall, hard, strong and smiling man,” as if untouched by the hardships that surrounded him. He loved fishing, fiddle music, banjo-playing, and his likker. He toiled first in cotton fields and later in a steel mill. He and Ava moved twenty-one times across the Alabama-Georgia border, always trying to stay one step ahead of ruin.

His love for moonshine also made him a drunk. Bragg doesn’t excuse that, admitting there were times Charlie “did things he shouldn’t have,” but also writes that “it takes someone who has outlived a mean drunk [his father] to appreciate a kind one.” When he drank, he mostly sang or made a fool of himself rather than raising a fist in anger.

Through it all, Ava bore eight children, all but one of whom survived to adulthood, through childhood privations and the twenty-one moves. When Bragg’s mother, Margaret, was born, Charlie paid the doctor in whiskey because it was all he had.

Charlie’s generosity and care extended beyond his family unit. He once adopted an older man, Hootie, who became like a son to him despite his age. He was an eccentric, living like a hermit by the river and talking to owls, which is how he earned his name. His physical deformities made him a target for some folks, who would stop by the river to beat him up for sport. But not Charlie, who befriended the man. One night, Charlie found Hootie near death from another assault. Charlie stayed by Hootie’s side all night, hatchet in hand, in case the men who had beat him came back. He took Hootie home with him for a few days. Ava protested, worried about how they’d feed another mouth when they could barely feed themselves, but Charlie made sure they got by. Hootie stayed and became another member of the family.

Bragg takes the narrative through his mother’s young adulthood when she was romanced by Korean War veteran Charles Bragg—a romance that would turn ugly in time from a combination of PTSD and alcoholism. Hootie moved back to the river and his old ways. As for Charlie, years of hard living and hard drinking took a toll on his liver, and he died of liver disease. Bragg tells the story of a poor man so beloved that when he died, cars stretched along the road a full mile to attend his funeral. He left behind no money, no treasured possessions—just the stories of the people who knew him and loved him.

Ava’s Man won critical acclaim for its portrayal of the hardscrabble life of working-class Southerners during the Depression and beyond. Publisher’s Weekly called Bragg’s story “eloquent and touching,” scattered with “memorable sentences” and “funny, painful anecdotes.” Bragg wrote a third and final family volume about his own youth, The Prince of Frogtown, in 2008.