I first saw Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson on NPR’s Best Books of 2019 List. I’d already read Brown Girl Dreaming by Woodson and found it both impressive and challenging because of its unexpected (to me) format. It was Cannonball Bingo that cemented my decision to read Red at the Bone. I was already interested in it, and I needed a book with “Red” in the title. Of course, I was a little too slow to make this one count, but I still enjoyed it.
The book begins with Melody’s debutante ball at her home. She is sixteen years old, surrounded by family and friends, wearing the never-worn dress made for her mother sixteen years before. Her mother, Iris, accidentally became pregnant with Melody when she was only fifteen. Melody’s father, Aubrey, also only a child, took on the responsibility of fatherhood with willing dedication and became part of Iris’s family. But this wasn’t the life that Iris wanted. She couldn’t imagine herself stuck in Brooklyn with Aubrey and caring for a child for the rest of her life. She ended up going to college in the Northwest, not estranged from her daughter, but not a major part of her life.
This book changes points of view from Melody, her mother Iris, her father Aubrey, and Melody’s grandparents. It is more about the family that created Melody than what she does with her own life. We see everyone’s reactions to the unexpected pregnancy: How Iris instinctively fights to keep her child despite her parents wishes; How Iris is surprised and horrified by the realities of being a mother; How Melody’s grandparents’ attitudes change drastically as time goes on.
Aubrey’s family is not as stable as Iris’s, and he loses his only real relative, his mother, pretty early on. He is given the choice to get involved in drugs, but avoids it. Iris’s parents’ ideas are formed by their memories and the stories of the Tulsa massacre in 1921, which ended up forcing the family to move North. Iris finds herself unexpectedly in love when she gets to college, something that might not have been realized if she’d stayed in Brooklyn.
I am definitely unable to do this novel justice. Woodson weaves a number of independent characters to create her family. Nothing fits easily together like a puzzle, and my feelings about the characters’ decisions are mixed–although I can always see where they’re coming from. Iris causes a lot of pain to her daughter and lover when she leaves, but to stay would be to deny herself pretty much her entire life. Her daughter resents her mother for her abandonment, but they continue to try to make it work.
I’m sure I will be reading more of Woodson’s work in the future. Recommended.
“When she lay in bed imagining someone else’s mouth on Jamison’s, she had to take slow breaths to calm herself down. She felt red at the bone–like there was something inside of her undone and bleeding.” (162)
“Guess that’s where the tears came from, knowing that there’s so much in this great big world that you don’t have a single ounce of control over.” (49)
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.