Book Review
One Good Mama Bone
Bren McClain
University of South Carolina Press, 280 pp., $19.99

McClain’s Critique on Southern Gender Roles

The term “toxic masculinity” often gets thrown around on social media as a way of defining the standards to which American culture holds its men. In his article for The Good Men Project, Harris O’Malley defines toxic masculinity as a “repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status, and aggression.”Southern culture also has archetypes like the cold, unforgiving “Outlaw” with his rebellious ways and the suave “Southern Gentleman” with his habitual flirtation and taste for fine things. In other words, Southerners idolize John Wayne and Clark Gable for their masculine aesthetic and roguish qualities.

But the cultural implications that emulating such archetypes have far reaching effects in reality. In her novel, One Good Mama Bone, Bren McClain calls bullshit on toxic masculinity’s guise of eternal power and control. Her carefully crafted cast of characters allows readers to compare toxic masculinity with healthy masculinity and the effect it has on men who try to emulate it. Her novel considers different approaches to masculinity and their effects on different generations, from father to child.

Luther and his son Little L.C. come from a family tradition of men raising cattle to make ends meet. The family is well known for raising prize-winning steers and dominating the competition. Luther is obsessed with instilling these qualities in Little L.C. His method of raising his son mirrors that which he uses for cattle—to break him before building him up to be a champion himself. Luther’s angry rants about Little L.C. losing the steer competition, his abusiveness toward his son (he bloodies the boy’s lip), and the pristine condition in which he makes his wife keep the household are all projections of the ideals stemming from toxic masculinity. As a cornerstone of power in his community, Luther makes the image of his family and his reputation as a winning cattleman crystal-clear to all who encounter him. His volatile nature mixed with his desire to maintain power and control over any situation exemplifies characteristics of toxic masculinity.

But the appearance of power, financial status, and control proves merely a cracked veneer when McClain takes readers into Luther’s thoughts. Through navigating his internal exchanges, she shows us the resulting symptoms of toxic masculinity. Just beneath the tough exterior, Luther’s anxiety about his image has the upper-hand. When dwelling on his son’s loss at the cattle show, “he imagined the smirks and whispers that would break out when he walked into the room, growing into all-out laughter and fingers pointed…” This is despite a long string of previous wins by his older son, himself, and his own father. As the word “loser” enters his mind, “his stomach knotted” with the threat of vomiting. This anxiety extends beyond Luther’s internal crisis, reaching its fingers toward his family. His wife is constantly chewing on peppermints to quell her ever-upset stomach. Little L.C. drifts between reality and his imagination, desperately seeking escape from his father’s rage and abuse.

McClain proves all is not lost for the Southern man through her portrait of another family living at the opposite end of the spectrum. Sarah and her adopted son Emerson Bridge survive in poverty. Sarah’s husband and Emerson’s biological father, Harold, dies from pneumonia. Harold doesn’t pass away before leaving Emerson with the most influential and potent lessons the novel offers. Only days before his death, he teaches Emerson how to shave, using the moment as an opportunity to teach the reader simultaneously. Harold shows Emerson that “now is all we’ve got” to give and receive love, before gently asking him to “be a better man than I was” After his father’s death, the lesson of kindness lingers in Emerson’s thoughts. Here, McClain successfully portrays the concept of “healthy masculinity.” Emerson learns to survive grief, hunger, harsh elements, and a number of other setbacks through virtues of patience and kindness.

Which version of masculinity wins in the end? The match is settled with the following year’s cattle competition. Luther’s strong and menacing front, seemingly endless resources, and conniving way of achieving what he wants prove solid oppositions for Emmerson Bridge’s gentleness, kindness, and strength in the face of adversity. Despite the odds, Emerson’s steer wins the contest, ensuring monetary stability for himself and his mother while years of greed, abusive behavior, and obsessive attempts to maintain control get the better of Luther. Little L.C., fearing his father’s rage for losing a second year, kills himself right after Emerson is announced as the winner.

McClain creates a very clear lesson about the line between toxic and healthy masculinity. As much as Southern culture perpetuates it as the norm, toxic masculinity offers little more than a cracked veneer of false confidence. It isn’t a sustainable expectation for anyone to live by, and it adversely affects both a man’s life and his family. Healthy masculinity navigates situations with care and compassion—a regard for others. It demonstrates true strength instead of a desperate need for control. Thus, this Southern tale serves a word of caution to Southern men. Dropping the manly facade takes a burden away from man, who, at heart, is always human first and foremost. Care, empathy, and inner strength will always win in the end, as exemplified by One Good Mama Bone’s Emerson Bridge. Perhaps, the South could do with more such heroes in its canon.