“My father was the prince of Frogtown” writes Alabama author and Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg in his latest book entitled The Prince of Frogtown. In this brutally honest, gut wrenching, and heartrending story, Bragg attempts, once again, to come to terms with his long-dead alcoholic and abusive father while at the same time learning to become a father himself. In 2005 at the age of 46, Bragg found himself married and the step-father of a ten year old boy. He writes that a man who chases a woman with a child is “like a dog that chases a car and wins.”
Each of the seventeen chapters of the book alternates between the past—his father’s coming of age in the mill village (the place they call Frogtown) in Jacksonville, Alabama—and the present—his own coming of age as a parent to a child who is all but an alien to him. “I had read of boys in plastic bubbles ho had more adventure.”
Much as Stephen Daedalus wandered the labyrinthine streets of Dublin in quest of a father, Bragg journeys in his imagination back to the hardscrabble Jacksonville of his father’s youth and even his grandfather’s youth to search for the father he had never really known. “ Man, I wish I could have known him. They say he was slick and pretty in ’55…” are the opening lines of Chapter One. These words set the tone for the rest of the book—the piecing together of the life of a father who abandoned his family for alcohol and who never was reclaimed. “It was that year I realized…,” Bragg writes, “that the devil lives in Alabama and swims in a mason jar.”
Bit by bit, Bragg stitches together the patchwork quilt of his father’s life from stories told by friends and family and what little he himself can remember. He struggles to answer the questions of what happens to a man when he is no longer a man and where to place the blame—on the dehumanizing life in a mill town where the mill claimed pieces of men as well as the lives of women and children, where a man was destined to failure before he was even born or on the power of moonshine whiskey to poison the very wellspring of life itself or on weakness of character, a lack of moral fiber. The questions are never really answered, but what emerges is the complex portrait of a man, his dreams, and his ultimate ruination.
Inserted inside each chapter, like the filling in a cake, is the story of “the boy” as Bragg calls the stepson he inherited when he married his mother . In these episodes we watch Bragg as he struggles with his own rebellious nature and his utter lack of ability to parent a ten year old boy. Having had no role model and fearing the boy will not be tough enough to survive in the real world, Bragg blunders through the boy’s pre-adolescent years, learning the lessons he never learned as a boy himself and eventually understanding that gentleness can travel hand in hand with strength. Just as the story of his own father was one of humiliation and defeat, the story of the boy is one of triumph and exultation. “The boy” becomes “my boy” as Bragg moves closer and closer to becoming the father he so desperately wanted and never ever had.
No one tells a story better than Rick Bragg and few writers are so unflinchingly candid in their recollections and observations. These are the qualities that made Bragg not only a prize winning journalist but also catapulted his first two memoirs All Over But the Shoutin’ (a paean to his mother) and Ava’s Man (a tribute to his maternal grandfather) to the top of the New York Times best seller list. In The Prince of Frogtown, Bragg writes “With this book I close the circle of family stories in which my father occupied only a few pages, but lived between every line.” At long last ,Bragg has found his father and at the same time discovered the father in himself.
---Penne J. Laubenthal