- Rural Life
The University of South Carolina Press
280Pages; Print, $27.99
This is an “old-fashioned” story of redemption through innocence—through valuing innocence in animals and humans, invoking innocence in oneself and others, and loving others for their innocence. The setting is a rural South Carolina community in the 1950s, a community that is intimate, but economically (and thereby socially) stratified. Each character’s appreciation of his/her struggle for redemption determines their role in this novel, and serves as a cohesive force throughout. All have experienced early emotional injury. Characters who cannot stop putting themselves and their needs before everyone else’s lose any love available to them; others redeem emotional injury, reclaiming their innocence through selfless love.
In no character is the latter better exemplified than Sara Creamer, the mother who is not in fact a mother, but to whom serving as a mother is of primary and redemptive importance. The son she sacrifices so much for is an orphan whose parents were Sara’s closest friend, and Sara’s husband. Many readers might see this affair as a betrayal, a justifiable cause for bitterness. But Sara sees herself as equally guilty—deficient in love and appreciation of her husband’s character and emotional needs. So keenly aware is she of her own deficiencies (real and imagined, planted in her mind by a toxic, estranged mother) that she feels unworthy of mothering her “son,” Emerson Bridge.
Sara’s inspiration for selfless love is Mama Red, a cow who wanders onto Sara’s small homestead with her calf, who also becomes a pivotal if passive player in this novel. Mama Red’s love and devotion to her calf constantly remind Sara of what mother love should be and do on behalf of one’s children—the most innocent, helpless creatures in an adult’s life. Sara’s poisonous mother has in effect cursed her, made her believe she is incapable of mother love. But in her appreciation for Mama Red’s selflessness, Sara sees that she too can love.
McClain knows rural life in depth, as is so apparent in the powerful scenes in which Mama Red gives birth to and nurtures her young and grieves when he—deemed valuable as a steer and therefore separated from her for a special feeding regimen—is separated from her. “Lucky,” as Emerson Bridge names him, will compete in a 4H event, the prize for which could be generous enough to change Sara and Emerson’s life.
McClain also appreciates, in compelling detail, the resourcefulness of poor people making do, planning how they will spend and stretch every penny. This is one of the pleasures of Sara Creamer’s widowed, impoverished life—figuring out how, exactly, she will feed and clothe her son with the little available to her. When Sara, who knows how to sew, comes across some spare cloth and decides to try her hand at dressmaking for more prosperous ladies in her community, McClain’s attention to the details of this craft contribute to making this undertaking a credible path out of desperate poverty for Sara and her son. This resourcefulness in Sara provides a refreshing break from what sometimes seems like an American obsession with material success and consumption. There are of course contemporary stories illustrating creative pleasure in work—but few like McClain’s, which illustrates what creative pleasure can come from working with what we have on hand.
The knowledge and detail attending these passages make them some of the strongest and most satisfying in McClain’s novel. They remind one of earlier women’s novels such as Mildred Pierce, written in the 1940s and 1950s, in which women use their wits and what they find at hand to support themselves and their families. Such stories please because they suggest that no matter how dire our circumstances become—at least through widowhood and economic injustice—women find the means to survive. If this is “magical thinking,” to quote Joan Didion, it is nevertheless the sort of reassuring myth that one enjoys in novels...