How is it that some writers, in under 200 pages, can paint for the reader a vivid picture of 100 years of history, of family dynamics, love, pain, frustration, success, and loss, while others in nearly 800 pages can only manage to cover a fraction of the time and far less of the depth of feeling of their characters (looking at you)? Jacqueline Woodson is one of the finest writers of our time. She has won numerous awards, including for her critically acclaimed YA memoir-as-poetry Brown Girl Dreaming. Red at the Bone is a novel, not necessarily YA but certainly appropriate for teens and older. It is a story of several generations of one family in Brooklyn, of mothers and daughters, powerful love and loss, and the possibility of rebuilding and moving forward.
Red at the Bone is not told in linear fashion and features several narrators, allowing the larger family story to unfold in a way that keeps the reader engaged and guessing. Each of the main characters has an opportunity to present their point of view at different points in the story. It opens with Melody describing her 16th birthday party, a sort of coming out party that is part of her family’s tradition. Melody has a beautiful dress, musicians playing her favorite songs, and her loving grandparents (Sabe and Po’ Boy), her father (Aubrey), mother (Iris), friends and family in the backyard of their Brooklyn home. But we know almost immediately that while all is lovely on the surface, some kind of tension exists, rooted in the family’s past. Melody’s mother Iris was meant to wear the dress that Melody wears but never had the opportunity. Iris as a teenager did something that scandalized her family, and her relationship with Aubrey is uneasy. Melody and her mother likewise have an uneasy relationship. As chapters unfold, the reader learns not just about Iris’ past but about the family’s history from 100 years back. Melody was named for her maternal great grandmother who survived the Tulsa massacre and like so many others was forced to leave what she loved behind and build anew elsewhere (Chicago). Sabe is proud of her family history and wants her descendants to remember and learn from it.
From here, the story spirals out in various directions. We learn about Iris’ past from Iris, her parents and Aubrey. We learn about Aubrey’s past and his love for both Iris and Melody. And we learn about Melody, her deep love for her father and grandparents, her conflicted feelings about her mother, her experiences at school. Powerful love is central to the story. Sometimes that love is returned and cultivated, but sometimes that love is terrifying, imperfectly expressed or even unrequited. Woodson’s characters must deal with loss through death and through imperfect love, love that comes at the wrong time or from the wrong person. Parts of this novel are indescribably sad. And yet, there is the possibility of surviving and moving forward, of holding on to the essentials as the Tulsa survivors did and building the life that you want. I am especially fascinated by Iris and her choices. While some might think her actions selfish, I found her to be a strong woman who had to learn to live with the consequences of her decisions. I think book clubs would could spend a lot of time just discussing Iris.
Red at the Bone, while showing relationships that are sometimes strained and painful, is a novel of hope, of a legacy rooted in the memory of those who formed us, who loved us and showed us how to move on.