Tuesday, February 14, 2017

One Good Mama Bone by Bren McClain

One Good Mama Bone’s first sentences are enough to capture even the most demanding reader’s attention.

“One night, deep into it, when sounds are prone to carry, a baby boy lies crying on Sarah Creamer’s kitchen table. He is minutes old, still wet with his mother’s blood, and hungry for his mother’s milk.

But she does not hear his cries. She is no longer there.

Only Sarah. Only Sarah remains. Her body bent over his, her hands rummaging the wooden planks for a towel still white enough to wrap him in. Blood is everywhere, puddled up as if there had been a hard rain. The smell of it saturates the eighty-one-degree air, pushes aside the dry tang of bleach, and fills the heat with the moistness of a long-shuttered earth, now free.

The baby’s cries penetrate Sarah’s bosom and bounce around its emptiness.”

Those sentences offer the promise of a good story with fine writing and the rest of One Good Mama Bone delivers on that promise. The book opens in 1944 on the day of Emerson Bridge’s birth and his mother Mattie’s death. It soon skips ahead to a dark November day in 1950 when a mother cow delivers twin calves in an empty pasture where she watches her first-born, a female calf, die. With fierce determination, the mother cow returns to her feet and saves her second-born, a male calf, with no one around to show her what to do.

“She would know, and it would come from a place deep inside where maternal love lives and maternal love grows, a place that is regardless there, never wavering there, nonnegotiably there.

It lay in her bones.”

Four months later Sarah Creamer’s husband, Harold drinks himself to death and she’s left to raise “her” son Emerson Bridge without a cent to her name and a huge debt on their farm that threatens to leave them homeless. Emerson Bridge is the evidence of the affair Sarah’s best friend and neighbor Mattie had with Harold. Sarah who had lost her only child in a birth that also took her ability to have more babies loves Emerson Bridge unequivocally. Taking care of Emerson Bridge is made difficult because of Sarah’s fears that she can’t be a good mother. Seared in her memory are her mother’s words told to her when she was six, “You-ain’t-got-you-one-good-mama-bone-in-you.”

Sarah is unwavering in her efforts to provide for Emerson Bridge so when she reads in the local newspaper that a boy has won $680 with his Grand Champion steer at the recent Fat Cattle Show & Sale, she sees this as the financial deliverance they need. She obtains a young steer from a neighboring farm, but the calf bellows his discomfort at having been weaned too soon from his mother. Mama Red, the same cow who’d been so determined to save her calf at his birth, breaks through a barbed-wire fence and travels to her calf. She calms and nurses him and teaches Sarah how to be a mother. Soon Sarah is moving toward winning the money that will change their lives, but an evil neighbor threatens her success. Still, Sarah seems primed to win until she realizes just what the price of winning will be.

One of the ingredients that sets this novel apart from the usual tales of motherhood is that it’s Mama Red and her care for her calf and the lessons Sarah absorbs from watching them together that form the novel’s core. The novel is a fine example of the southern tradition of using place to portray the effects of isolation and poverty. Readers may need to acclimate themselves to Sarah’s simple speech, but once under its spell, they’ll see how it delivers them into the world that shaped her. This extraordinarily original novel veers from typical southern fiction in its use of animals as behavioral models. Just as Mama Red’s love for her calf “lay in her bones,” Sarah’s gumption rises out of her being to form one very good mama bone.

One Good Mama Bone brilliantly, yet softly, addresses the deep connection between us and the animals in our world. It delivers a universal tale of love as seen through the compassionate depiction of a mother cow and her star pupil. I don’t lightly compare any book to one of my all-time favorites, but it would be difficult to ignore the similarities that One Good Mama Bone shares with Charlotte’s Web.

Summing it Up: Animal lovers, southern fiction fans, and those who simply like a well-told story will devour One Good Mama Bone just as they would the best home-made biscuits and gravy. There's a reason the late Pat Conroy wanted this for his imprint. Do yourself a favor and read this book.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Grits, Pigeon Pie, Book Club

Publication date: February 14, 2017

Q & A with the Author: http://www.brenmcclain.com/qa/

What Others are Saying:

“In spite of being an animal lover all my life and feeling the centrality of that love in how I see the larger world, I have never directly addressed that theme in my writing. I no longer have to. Bren McClain’s brilliant and ravishingly moving One Good Mama Bone speaks eloquently for all of us who find our deepest humanity intimately connected with all the sentient creatures around us. Humane and universal, One Good Mama Bone is an instant classic.” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler

“Bren McClain writes of elemental things with grace, wisdom, and power. One Good Mama Bone speaks with a quiet authority that comes through on every page.”  Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

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