Bren McClain's first novel, "One Good Mama Bone," has received numerous honors, not the least of which is its having been selected by the late Pat Conroy for his Story River Books, an imprint of the University of South Carolina Press. McClain has herself won awards and fellowships for her previous writings, and "One Good Mama Bone" was named a 2017 Okra pick by Southeastern Independent Booksellers Alliance and a Pulpwood Queens worldwide book club selection. That's just the beginning, one senses.
But here's the thing: "One Good Mama Bone" is not just a fine literary novel, it's one fine read.
Its characters, both bovine and human, engage the reader completely. Their stories are Southern - primal, heartbreaking and heart mending. The themes are universal, even though the characters are Southern, with Southern values.
Sarah Creamer, McClain's protagonist, is damaged, first by her mother who seems to be unworthy of Sarah, from whom she seems to withhold her love. She so vehemently tells Sarah she has got "not one good mama bone" that Sarah believes her completely. Later, it is Sarah's husband and her best friend who betray her, and following their deaths, with her mother's proclamation of "no mama bone" - or maternal instinct - ingrained in her psyche, Sarah is left to raise their young son.
There is a photo of a beautiful cow on the front cover of "One Good Mama Bone," appropriate, because she, whom Sarah calls Mama Red, is a major character. Her "mama bone" becomes the example for Sarah's, and Mama Red her teacher and confidante. The "parallels between nature and human nature," are approached in "thoughtful and unique ways," writer Mary Alice Monroe notes in her foreword. In McClain's hands, their lessons touch us deeply.
The story of "One Good Mama Bone" is set in the early 1950s in upstate South Carolina. Sarah and her husband Harold are raising his son Emerson Bridge together, until Harold's death from alcoholism. Dirt poor, getting more desperate daily and with no prospects, Sarah and Emerson Bridge suffer terribly. Then Sarah reads about a young boy winning almost $700 for having raised a steer that is judged to be Grand Champion at a prestigious cattle show. She manages somehow to buy a young steer for Emerson Bridge to raise, placing all her hopes for their survival on its winning.
When the steer is taken from its mother to Sarah's farm miles away, it calls plaintively for her in the night, and the mother cow answers, eventually breaking through her barbed wire pen and making her way, bleeding, to her calf. Sarah finds them together in the morning, and it is then that Mama Red becomes her teacher.
If there is a true villain in the story, it is Luther Dobbins, the man who sold Sarah the steer. The richest, most successful cattle farmer in the area, he is determined that his own son's steer will become Grand Champion, not for the prize money, but for the glory of the win and what he sees as his rightful position in the community. And he's willing to do anything to obtain it. In McClain's hands, Dobbins is pitiable and despicable at the same time, yet not a caricature of the racist, Jim Crow-era Southern landowner he is.
Perhaps the largest obstacle to their success at the cattle show and thus, their future, arises when Sarah and Emerson Bridge learn just what the ultimate fate of the Grand Champion would be.
Issues of love and trust are at the forefront of "One Good Mama Bone," and it is here that the story reaches its most critical point. Emerson Bridge loves his steer and has gained his trust, and should he win, he doesn't think he can betray that trust. The young boy faces an immense responsibility to the steer he calls Lucky and to Sarah.
The plot and McClain's deeply developed characters are matched by her language. It is both realistic and poetic, simple and eloquent at once, and it will draw you in quickly and completely. "One Good Mama Bone" is 254 pages long, but don't expect to speed through it. You'll likely find yourself stopping to re-read many passages, just to savor that language.
"One Good Mama Bone" by Bren McClain is published by the University of South Carolina Press. It can be purchased at Books-A-Million in Sumter Mall, on Amazon or at the author's booksigning from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Friday at Elephant Ear Gallery, 672 Bultman Drive. Call (803) 773-2268 for more information.