A single mother and her son raise a steer with hopes of winning a cash prize in the local 4-H competition.
Complicated relationships layer this story, set in the early 1950s in South Carolina. Sarah Creamer unexpectedly becomes a mother to the baby who resulted from her best friend's affair with her husband after her friend commits suicide following the delivery. Nearly seven years later, Sarah’s husband drinks himself to death, leaving her a single mother solely responsible for paying the family’s debts. Desperate to provide her son, Emerson Bridge, with food, Sarah makes a dress to sell to the wealthy Mildred Dobbins, wife of the cattleman and landowner Luther Dobbins. After Sarah reads about a steer winning $680 in a competition, she buys a calf from Luther in hopes that Emerson Bridge will win the championship the next year to raise their family out of poverty—and thinking that the calf would be a friend for her son. The young steer, Lucky, is soon joined in the Creamers’ yard by his mother, who broke through the Dobbins’ fences to find her calf. As Sarah struggles with how to be a good mother to Emerson Bridge, she looks to the mother cow, whom she names Mama Red, for guidance and also forms an unlikely friendship with Mildred Dobbins. The two families become further entangled since the Dobbins’ son, LC, is also raising a steer for the 4-H competition. Emerson Bridge and LC become friends and the stakes become even higher as Luther, who desperately wants his family to win the contest, turns increasingly violent and erratic. Through all of these connections, McClain’s first novel resists predictability and instead weaves together questions about poverty, class, violence, and religion as these two families question what parent-child relationships should be. The short, clipped sentences can make the story difficult to follow at times, but the language does help establish Sarah more fully as a character. Sarah's relationship with Mama Red sometimes obscures the development of other relationships, such as the one between Sarah and her landlord, and the ending perhaps reaches a bit too much toward a closure that the characters themselves won’t find.
A thought-provoking story about families and the animals who sustain them.