by Nicki Leone
There is a moment early in Bren McClain’s One Good Mama Bone, out last February from University of South Carolina Press, where the protagonist, Sarah Creamer, steals a biscuit and a piece of sausage from a neighbor’s kitchen. She had never stolen anything before in her life, but when she confesses to Mrs. Dobbins the next day, she simply says it was for her son: “He was hungry”—an explanation, not an excuse. Sarah promises to make amends for her crime, “…to cook and clean for you, do your ironing, empty out your slop jars and dust y’alls awards.” Mrs. Dobbins, who had only come by to pay Sarah for a dress she had made, pauses, and then waves aside the offense. Nothing to forgive. Leftover food always went to the pigs anyway.
But Sarah measures the value of that stolen biscuit differently. It is not just the cost of flour and a little butter. It is both a sin on her soul that she will have to answer for and something she can feed her hungry boy. The latter is worth the former. He was hungry.
That one small incident encapsulates the driving force in McClain’s debut novel—one she jokes was 27 years in the making. Deep South Magazine called it “a celebration of motherhood,” but it is more a story that shows us how far we are—or should be—willing to go for our children.
Sarah Creamer does not start out believing she is a mother. On the contrary, she is firmly convinced she isn’t capable of being one, much less a good one. Her own mother’s opinion, “you ain’t got you one good mama bone in you,” has followed Sarah for her whole life like a curse. And when Sarah gets pregnant, only to have a miscarriage and be told she’ll never be able to have another baby, she realizes that curse was in fact a prophecy.
But when Sarah’s best friend has a baby after an affair with Sarah’s husband, and then commits suicide, leaving the child on the front porch, Sarah can’t walk away from the responsibility even while she is terrified. By the time she finds herself in Mrs. Dobbins’s kitchen looking at the uneaten biscuits, her husband has drunk himself to death, leaving Sarah with no food, no money, no support, nothing but her conviction of her own inadequacy and one very beautiful gift—the little boy she and her husband had named Emerson Bridge.
Partly to raise money, partly to give her newly fatherless seven-year-old boy a friend, she hits on a plan to buy a young steer for Emerson Bridge to raise. The local 4-H club has a program for boys, and the winning steer can fetch more than $600—a huge amount of money in 1950s rural South Carolina. With the steer also comes the mother cow, who broke down a barbed wire fence and walked several miles across rough ground to be with her calf. Sarah takes to calling the cow “Mama Red” and whispers her worries and fears to the animal, just as Emerson Bridge does to the calf he has taken charge of and named “Lucky.” The two pairs of mothers and sons weather the hardships and obstacles thrown their way. It is always worth listening to the animals, Sarah and her son learn; but it is Mama Red and Lucky who are their teachers.
So how far do we go for our children? Mama Red will push through a fence and walk miles, bleeding. Sarah works herself into a state of collapse for her child and never thinks of doing otherwise. “My boy needs me” is why Sarah picks herself up after every knock-down life delivers.
Other parents in the novel try just as hard. Sometimes they succeed without even realizing it—like Mr. Ike Thrasher, who will never father his own child and is scorned by all the men in the county, but who ends up a decent father figure for Emerson Bridge. Other times they fail, with terrible consequences.
In McClain’s hands parenthood is not a duty or an obligation. It is not just a fact of biology. It’s not simply “instinct,” which implies something unconscious. McClain, who has a real Mama Red in her life, says of her that she “… is my direct link to the divine.” “The Divine” might be another name for force of nature—the drive to protect a child that is as irresistible as the strong wind of a summer storm. It might also be another name for love.
Bloom: One Good Mama Bone has been called “a celebration” of motherhood, but it feels deeper than that, more like a—veneration is the word that comes to mind—of the maternal instinct to care for a child. So it isn’t just about the child you give birth to, is it?
Bren McClain: Oh, no ma’am. Not at all. It’s about an attitude of service—no, a heart of service—to someone else’s needs, someone whose life you can make better, stronger. Sarah’s hesitation at becoming a mother to Emerson Bridge, a child who was not hers, had nothing to with his not being her biological child, but had everything to do with her own feeling of total inadequacy at being able to be a mother, to having a “mama bone.”
I love your word veneration. That’s it, exactly. The story may have started out as a “celebration,” but, with each draft, my own respect and understanding of motherhood became deeper, to use your word. And so much so that the central relationship of the novel changed. I started out thinking it was Sarah and Emerson Bridge, but, with each draft I came to see it was actually between the two mothers, Sarah and Mama Red, the mama cow who becomes Sarah’s mentor, teacher, confidante.
Alongside the story of Sarah Creamer as she learns how to be a mother, there is a parallel story, about the men who are trying to be fathers. One Good Mama Bone is really about being a parent—how beautiful and hard and scary and amazing it is to raise a child. Is that why Luther Dobbins has such strong presence in the book?
You are so right about the book broadening beyond mothers as parents to fathers as parents, too. The parallel story with Luther, who is my antagonist, serves as a counterpoint to Sarah’s. Luther expects his boy, Little LC, to serve him, supplying Luther with love and admiration. Yet Luther has what I think of as “poetry,” that battle within himself for the opposite—that is, his wanting to be a better man and give his boy love. A reader has told me that Luther is always one decision away from being that better man.
It’s the other way around for Sarah, who wants to serve her little boy, Emerson Bridge, giving him love. What carries Sarah’s “want to” is food, especially biscuits, which she wants to make for him and feed him. Without Luther’s darkness, we would not see Sarah’s light nearly as bright, nor his nearly as dark.
Where did the term “mama bone” come from?
I do a lot of driving, so I travel with an old-fashioned cassette tape recorder that I talk into. There are several narrative voices in the novel, one of which is Sarah’s addressing Mama Red in a first person confessional. I talked that entire voice into the recorder, so when I came to the mama dog scene and [Sarah’s mother] Teeniebelle showed up, I got inside her mindset. She yells for Sarah to come out from under their mill village house, where little girl Sarah had been watching a mama dog have puppies. Teeniebelle is mad at Sarah, because Sarah was supposed to be in the house cooking cornbread. Sarah tells her mother that she thinks what she just witnessed was beautiful. I remember my hand that was holding the tape recorder began to shake, and out of my mouth came, “You ain’t got you one good mama bone in you, girl.” The words just popped out. I had never heard that expression before Teeniebelle Bolt breathed a wicked life into them.
You have a Mama Red in your life, don’t you? You thank her in the acknowledgments. Who is she? What does she mean you?
Mama Red is my direct link to the divine. I wrote a failed novel about motherhood and didn’t know what to do to “fix” it, until I crossed Mama Red’s path one early morning at my daddy’s [beef cattle ranch] in Anderson, SC. Daddy had weaned the baby calves from their mamas the afternoon before. Their cries for each other became so loud through the night that they woke me up and drew me outside to the pasture, to a gathering of mama cows, huddled in the corner of a barbed wire fence, their babies huddled the same way up a grassy lane about 30 yards away. Their cries seeped into my bones. And I knew that there in front of me sounded the missing piece of the story I had been trying to tell. I made a promise to the mama in the deep corner, whose eyes were cut my way as if saying Please bring my baby back. I told her I couldn’t, but I could tell her story. I made her a promise. I threw out 99% of the failed novel and started over, placing this maternal instinct at the center. I believe that my meeting her was part of a divine plan, which led me to write One Good Mama Bone.
There’s another part of the story. Mama Red is 25 years old, an age unheard of for cows because most are sold for slaughter at around age eight, when farmers deem then unreliable to deliver a calf every year. So why is Mama Red still alive? She is a wonderful mama, and that’s why Daddy let her live. But when she was 16, he called me up one day and said he was taking her to the sale. This was a few weeks after I’d made her that promise. I asked him how much he would get. He said $1,000. “The check’s in the mail, Daddy,” I told him. I gave Mama Red sanctuary. She is living out her days, sweet people.
When I told Mama Red that I had delivered on my promise:
You’ve said in interviews that you wanted to be a writer since about the age of three, and that you insisted on having clothes with pockets to carry pencils and notebooks. But was there a moment when you associated “writer” with telling a story?
After growing up hearing Bible stories and reading Dick and Jane in school, I must have made the connection in the fourth grade when I wrote a play, “Taking Care of Birds.” It was about a little girl who was walking home from school one day and found a hurt hummingbird. She picked it up and took care of it, nursing it back to life. I showed it to my teacher, Mrs. Walters, and she had our class perform it. It was such a hit, we performed it for the entire school. Then in the fifth grade, I wrote my first novel about a little girl who wanted a pony. I named the girl Dale Carson, Dale being my middle name and Carson being a good western name, which I loved. The truth was I wanted a pony and put that yearning on the page.
You’ve mentioned the story of how one day a neighbor—whom you’ve never spoken to before—calls you over and tells you a story. It’s a terrible story, but he tells it to you because you’re a writer and he has been keeping his secret for over 50 years—what a responsibility. The novel might not have been written without it, but neither could you put “what really happened” in your story. Is this one of your roles as a writer? The midwife of people’s stories?
I can’t imagine any other reason he’d tell me. What an honor for someone to reveal to you something he’s been hiding for 54 years. As for this being one of my roles as a writer—yes, absolutely. In a broad picture, I think my role as a writer is being in service to the gift that I came into this world with. And I’m not bragging—I think we all come in with talents. The key is discovering them and giving them back to the world. For me, being a writer is the only way I want to live. It’s the lens through which I see everything. For me, I like to find what I think is beautiful and then cradle it in my arms and lift it up and say, “Here’s what I think is beautiful. Here’s what moves my soul.”
Ron’s story certainly did. And I’d like to believe that somehow he knew I would honor it. And him.
How blessed I am to be a writer.
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities at a young age when she asked her parents if she could exchange a gift of jewelry for a hardcover Merriam-Webster. Later, her college career and attending loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. Currently she works with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. She has been a book reviewer for local magazines and newspapers, and the on-air book commentator for her local public radio and television stations. She is also past president and a current member of the board of the North Carolina Writers Network. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with a varying numbers of dogs and cats.
Nicki Leone’s previous features: Margaret Sanger, Game Changer: Sabrina Jones’s Our Lady of Birth Control, A Mother’s Day: Desiree Cooper’s Know the Mother, Mary Daly, Desire, and Exuberant Feminist Ethics, The Not Non-Fiction of Magdalena Tulli, When Style Is Content: A Run-In with the Fiction of W.M. Spackman, Bruno Schulz: Living in the Republic of Dreams, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s Pakistan: Where East Meets East, Gaston Leroux: A Man of Heaven and Earth, Connections in Space and Time: The Stories of Josh Rolnick, Samuel Richardson: Persuading Pamela
All photos of Mama Red courtesy of Bren McClain.
I am deeply moved. Thank you, Nicki Leone, and thank you, Bloom. What a tribute to Sarah and Mama Red and all mamas who go the distance for their children.