In the harrowing opening scenes of Bren McClain’s debut novel, One Good Mama Bone, Sarah Creamer finds herself forced into a role she never expected: substitute mother to the baby of her husband’s mistress. After delivering the child on her own kitchen table, Sarah pleads with the infant’s mother—Sarah’s own neighbor and best friend, Mattie—to take responsibility for her newborn. But in this moment of extremity, Sarah lays the matter out plain: “I don’t want him. He ain’t mine, and I wouldn’t make no good mama.”
Gripped by fear and trauma, Mattie commits suicide, leaving Sarah to raise the baby boy with her husband, who eventually wastes away from guilt and liquor. Left alone, Sarah’s circumstances become desperate, as she struggles to pay a growing heap of outstanding bills. While dutifully committed to her responsibility, Sarah has held herself at a certain distance from the child, named Emerson Bridge. She’s fond of him but cannot help viewing him as a heartrending reminder of his origins.
Almost by accident, Sarah learns of a local competition and determines to win the prize money by raising a young steer for a local competition. She also hopes to provide Emerson Bridge with an animal “to buddy with,” after the loss of his father. But when she purchases a calf from her self-righteous, prideful neighbor, Luther Dobbins, Sarah has no idea that the real prize will be the steer’s fierce mother, who risks her life to leave the Dobbins farm and follow her suckling calf to Sarah’s property. Recognizing this animal’s unique power to affect her, Sarah names her Mama Red, and the two become deeply connected.
McClain makes the risky choice to write numerous passages from Mama Red’s point of view, beginning with the steer’s dramatic birth. Having given birth to two calves, Mama Red attempts to defend her newborns from a menacing crowd of buzzards: “The mother began to circle her baby, her sounds guttural. Her udder, full with milk, swung beneath her… She rammed one bird with her nose. It grunted and hopped back. She moved faster now. Almost running. Charging the second one to her left. Then to her right. Only for a third buzzard and then fourth to join in. The mother’s breathing was hurried. Her mouth dry, bone dry.”
Mama Red’s sections seem wobbly at first, not unlike a newborn calf, and they take some time to find their way into the novel’s human narratives. But once Sarah and Mama Red come together, this narration finds its footing. Mama Red’s visceral devotion to her young steer releases something unexpected inside Sarah—the possibility that she might have the right to a true mother love for Emerson Bridge. From this turning point, the narrative links between Sarah and Mama Red deepen, as well as those between Sarah and her own past. New visions for Sarah’s future begin to emerge.
Surrounding Sarah and Mama Red are a group of supporting characters embroiled in their own struggles. Ike Thrasher, the landowner to whom Sarah owes back payments, decides to invest in Sarah’s prize-steer venture. This new chapter in Thrasher’s life brings him into an honest engagement with the ghosts of his upbringing and ultimately to an acceptance of his own gentle nature. By contrast, Luther Dobbins brings a volatile presence into the novel, as he swings between violent threats toward those around him and a burning desire for repentance. His desire to maintain his winning streak in the steer contest blinds him to the damage he inflicts around him.
With its atmospheric depiction of mid-century farm life, One Good Mama Bone exists within the realm of well-known traditions of Southern fiction. It will appeal most to readers who crave tales of hardscrabble characters fighting battles both with their inmost souls and their empty pantries. With this novel’s emphasis on the redemptive possibilities inherent within these struggles, McClain, who lives in Ashland City, has created a story that will provide those readers with a satisfying fix.
Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction has been published in The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Double Dealer, and her nonfiction has appeared in Yemassee, Late Night Library, and elsewhere. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.