Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
To begin: This is a book about a woman who talks to a cow and comes to believe she can learn some things from the cow, Big Mama Red, whose child is a steer named Lucky.
The woman is Sarah Creamer and the novel is set in the 1950s in rural South Carolina, likely upstate. When the novel opens, Sarah’s best friend is delivering the baby of Sarah’s husband’s girlfriend. The best friend dies right after the baby’s birth and Sarah and her husband are left to raise the child whom they name Emerson Bridge. Sarah’s husband loses his job and spends what little money they have on alcohol and drinks himself to death.
Sarah is left to raise Emerson but she doesn’t believe she has the capacity to love him as a mother should. The metaphorical notion is that she doesn’t possess that “one good mama bone.” She has to find that “mama bone” and become the mother of a boy who is not biologically hers.
The words were Sarah’s own mother’s words and seared in her mind since the early age of six. There’s prophecy, there’s infidelity, and there’s poverty. And there are devious people both young and old.
The novel’s foreword by Mary Alice Monroe notes that the story was highly anticipated for nearly a decade. It’s a novel with a heart-breaking beginning whose conclusion is morally and emotionally satisfying, traversing the time from 1944 to the 1950s.
McClain’s portrait of Sarah Creamer is compelling and to read the novel is to become more aware of Sarah’s maternal instincts that emerge, as Monroe notes, “from her very marrow.” It’s what lies dormant in us all until called forth, or as Monroe again notes, in what’s “grounded in the courage to act completely in the interest of another, to give without question and without expectations receiving the same.”
There’s a personal point to be made here. I grew up in rural Minnesota. Most of the farm children I knew belonged to 4-H Clubs very likely because it was expected they would continue the agrarian lives of their parents and grandparents.
What I remember is intense preparation for our local county fair. Young 4-H women would bake banana breads or raise chickens and rabbits and bring these items to the fair. Young men would raise steers or hogs and bring them to the fair to “exhibit.” And so ribbons and prizes. Livestock would be sold and marketed, the proceeds then saved or, soon after the fair, the young men would sport about on new motor scooters.
The purpose was manifold but in a larger way the intent was to develop youth to be themselves.
I mention this because McClain’s novel centers on the means by which Sarah Creamer unites with her son and by which Mama Red unites with her child, Lucky.
The theme isn’t complicated: Sarah needs money. The solution to her hardscrabble life is to buy a steer from the much more well-to-do Luther Dobbins. If Sarah and Emerson can raise the steer, win a prize, and then bring the steer to market, they’ll enjoy a good beginning to life without poverty.
Sarah must be a mother to Emerson but the complication comes from Mama Red, who pushes her way through barbed wire fences and then traverses country fields to be reunited with Lucky. One suspects it’s what lies at the heart of parenthood.
Structurally the novel presents a modest challenge. There are shifting moments in which the type font changes to bold print and then to italics and then returns to regular type font and the story’s main thrust. The three combine into narrative shifts. The bold type font is an omniscient and poetic rendering of Mama Red; the italic shift is a narration of Sarah Creamer’s consciousness; and the regular type font is ordinary omniscient narration.
Does the structure pose a difficulty? It depends upon what a reader is willing to accept. It’s the instincts of Mama Red toward her calf Lucky that reinforce Sarah Creamer’s ambition to become a better mother—but why render in bold type font?
A bit like this: “The mother cow had not seen or heard the gentle wind. The mother cow kept watch.”
The point is that Sarah becomes emboldened by lessons learned from Mama Red, which suggests a sort of animal-as-teacher theme. The premise is there and the potential is there even if a bit melodramatic and sentimental. But I kept returning to this phrase at the beginning of the novel: “his whole being still alive and set to carry the prayers of all who would cross his path.”
Mary Alice Monroe claims that her favorite sections of the book “are the poignant and brief passages centering on Mama Red’s animal perspective and Sarah’s monologues with Mama Red…the animal’s strong maternal instincts even as [Sarah’s] own grow and ripen.” I agree.
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