When my book club decided to read One Good Mama Bone by Bren McClain, I did something I often do in this situation: downloaded the audio book.
A writer myself, my eyes get seriously tired! At the time, I didn’t realize the audiobook was read by Bren herself, or that I’d spend the next few days listening to her low, slow, southern voice lead me through the desperate emotions her characters experience in the world she created—a world that examines the strengths and limitations of parental love, inspired by Mama Red, a cow from Bren’s father’s farm.
Impressed, I looked her up and realized she and her critique partner, Jana Sasser, author of Gradle Bird, were teaching a workshop at The Pat Conroy Literary Festival right down the road. I signed up for the workshop with the intention of asking Bren to speak to my book club the following month.
When I arrived, Bren was standing at the door making herself immediately available to chat with attendees. Meeting her was like talking to someone I’d known for a few years rather than a few seconds. I think this is because Bren never seems rushed. Before the workshop started, she took time to ask and answer questions and find common ground. I, of course, blurted out my invitation for her to speak to my book club while still standing in the doorway (unlike Bren, I always rush).
After Bren graciously expressed her interest, we exchanged email addresses so we could later pin down a date. And, having learned I was an author, she invited me to join her and a group of other book lovers for dinner at a local restaurant. Gracious. Inclusive. Taking time to learn other people’s stories. These qualities are the same ones that endear Bren to book clubs.
In the four years since the publication of One Good Mama Bone, Bren has met with over 170 different book clubs in person or online, and continues to meet with several a month via Zoom. There’s no doubt her popularity with book clubs has helped sales, but for Bren, the bigger payoffs are the human connections she has made. Many of her readers have moved her with stories of how her novel has affected them.
“There’s nothing like hearing how reading my book made them understand a part of their lives,” says Bren, reflecting on a reader she met in North Carolina. “She told me her whole life she had avoided confronting her mother about some abusive behavior. When she read about Tenniebelle, an abusive mother in my novel, and Sarah’s standing up to her, she found the courage to go see her mother and tell her how she felt. She said a healing began that day.”
More surprising to Bren, but just as wonderful, is the impact her readers have had on her. Bren recalls a book club meeting in France, where she was promoting the French version of her novel, retitled Mama Red. There, she shared the story of her father, a farmer from Anderson, South Carolina calling her to let her know he was planning to sell “that mama cow you’ve lost your mind over.” Bren told the group she sent her father a check for $1,000 to save the cow, but she had always resented him for wanting to take her to market. An attendee said, “He didn’t have to tell you he was selling her. He could have just taken her. He was giving you an opportunity to save her.” Bren suddenly understood her father’s motivations. She admits this revelation brought her to tears.
Bren has met with clubs with as few as three members, “And enjoyed every minute of it.” She has also met with groups large enough to fill up a conference room. No matter the size of group or the town they are from, Bren says she, “shows up 1000% and in gratitude. I’m not afraid to show who I am. I’ve cried at many of these, as I’ve talked about something that touches my heart—Sarah’s hardship or Mama Red’s love, for example.” As someone who sat in the audience of that packed conference room, I can attest to this! Before she started speaking, Bren took a moment to acknowledge every face she recognized.
One of her favorite memories involves speaking to a club in the small town of Bamberg, SC. She says, “The little bitty community turned out in droves on this Friday afternoon on Valentine’s. And then a group of them invited me to join them at Connie Ray’s Restaurant for Valentine’s dinner! There were 14 of us that night, sitting at a string of tables they’d pulled together. Oh my—the way I was welcomed into that community. I fell totally in love with these folks, who made me feel like I was one of them. Connie Ray even brought over the driver of a food services delivery truck to meet me, saying, We have a real author eating with us tonight.”
In giving her readers a chance to connect with her, Bren has received the biggest reward of publication: the chance to connect with them. In addition to making new friends and visiting unique communities, she has been given meaningful gifts, including over a dozen hand-painted portraits of Mama Red. “The response to my book has been overwhelming and heartwarming. I have never felt so loved in my entire life,” she says. “Book clubs are my lifeline. What an affirmation that a book I spent many years writing means something to other people, too, that what I felt in my heart is felt in someone else’s, too. Deeply humbling.”
When my book club decided to read One Good Mama Bone, I didn’t realize I’d become friends with the author, opening my eyes to the impact embracing book clubs can have. With her never-rushing spirit, Bren always makes time to interact with the people who love her book. And because book club members tend to share favorite reads with each other, those connections keep expanding, carrying One Good Mama Bone into its sixth printing.
While book clubs continue to embrace her first novel, Bren is actively working on her second. It's a story inspired by a woman named Eula Bates, who in 1951 was committed to a South Carolina mental asylum for 16 years after refusing to give the federal government the right of way to run a four-lane blacktop through her farm.
No doubt when it is published, a host of fans who have laughed and cried with Bren during book club meetings will be waiting for it with open arms.
Find out more information about Bren and her award-winning book:
*Feature Image: cover (partial) of One Good Mama Bone by Bren McClain / Story River Books