LAURIE HERTZEL Star Tribune
“The Speckled Beauty” by Rick Bragg; Alfred A. Knopf, 238 pages, $26.
Those of us with city dogs (what Rick Bragg calls “fancy dogs”) might be dismayed to read about the life of Speck, the rambunctious, mostly untrained rescue dog on the loose. and still spoiled for a fight that Bragg talks about in his new memoir, “The Speckled Beauty.”
Speck isn’t a neat, clean, properly neutered rescue dog adopted into human society, but it was a bleeding, ripped, blind in one eye, and nearly dead Australian Shepherd mix that Bragg scraped from his rural driveway. in Alabama and somehow cured for health.
A former New York Times reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of 12 books, Bragg grew up in Possum Trot, Alabama. Now in his 60s, he lives on the mountainside outside of Jacksonville, Alabama, with his mother. (“I always came home, when I wasn’t sure where to go,” he says.)
Bragg’s writing can be wordy and overworked, his anecdotes perhaps overdone, but he’s almost always entertaining, and this book reads quickly. He says he learned to tell tales of old men, “the backslidden Bible scholars, daytime drinkers and Huddle House philosophers who chain-smoked Lucky Strikes ‘and are mostly gone now,'” buried under a few inadequate words embedded in a granite slab.”
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OK, that’s a bit much, even if it has a nice pace.
Bragg is at his best here when he tells the story directly – it’s a good story, the dog’s slow metamorphosis from vicious wild creature to somewhat benign companion.
Speck is a real dog, although he could also be a metaphor for Bragg – both came home looking for love and care. Both need to improve in just about every way and both have a deep love for food, especially Bragg’s mother’s cookies. (We think dog owners would be appalled by Speck’s diet, too.)
Bragg himself is in poor health, in remission from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, heart and kidney failure, chronic pneumonia, kidney stones, diabetes and depression. Oh, and his knees are shot. (He runs, he says, “with all the grace and speed of a pot-bellied stove.”)
Over the years, he and his mother have taken in “hundreds” of strays; the hills of Alabama are wild with packs of hungry wild dogs that mate and fight (sometimes to the death) and survive on anything they can scrounge – fast food wrappers, rats, snakes and “sometimes worse”. (For example, junk cats that people throw on the side of the road.)
Speck was one such dog, which makes it odd that Bragg resists neutering Speck, who is allowed to run free. He only agrees to the operation after the vet suggests it might calm the dog down. (Nothing can calm this dog.)
The book contains some hilarious scenes, like when Speck somehow picks up a group of kittens in a paper bag and trots along with them around the yard. And there are beautiful scenes, like when Speck gathers a flock of blackbirds, circling them, tighter and tighter, “and for a few glorious seconds he succeeded by God” until the birds explode through the air. and fly away.
Bragg’s descriptions are vivid, his use of colorful place names is enchanting, and although the story is Speck’s, every time Bragg turns the camera on himself, you find you love him and you empathize with him a little more each time.
“The Speckled Beauty” is a very southern story – devotion to motherhood, wild dogs, biscuits, snakes, red earth and obnoxious mules – but in a larger way it is universal, a story of loyalty, love and redemption.
“My people think a good story will solve just about anything,” Bragg writes, and in this case, that might actually be true.
Kathleen Rooney is the author of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and, most recently, “Dear Friend and Major Whittlesey”.