Red at the Bone (2019) by Jacqueline Woodson, the Crozet Library book club’s selection for March, opens on the evening of Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony. As she dons the dress made for—but never worn by—her mother, they share a cold, angry conversation that implies a deep-seated alienation and hurt between them. This conversation raises several questions that are answered only by the end of the novel: why is their relationship so strained? Why is Melody so angry at her mother? Why did Iris never wear the dress, or participate in her own ceremony? Through snapshot flashbacks from the lives of Iris, Melody’s father Aubrey, her four grandparents, and beyond, Woodson explores themes of race, class, education, young love, sexual identity, parent-child relationships, loss, and grief. “I am not Melody who is sixteen,” our protagonist tells us. “I am not my parents’ once illegitimate daughter—I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.” That narrative comprises the balance of Red at the Bone.
As the members of one extended Black family watch Melody descend the staircase, the life stories of four generations of her ancestors are artfully woven together through their thoughts and memories. Woodson’s third adult novel—plus 20 for young adults and 13 illustrated books for young readers—primarily deals with the joy, pain, and life consequences of teen pregnancy—including the daunting decision on whether to have an abortion. “If there’s a baby in me, I’m keeping it,” Melody declares when her mother suggests it (41). But it also celebrates family love, loyalty, and triumphs over adversity. After calling early in the morning to tell Aubrey, “You put a baby inside me,” 15-year-old Iris’s life is derailed. She is ostracized by her classmates and barred from her Catholic school. Her parents are devastated, only later becoming committed to helping raise their granddaughter. Aubrey’s mother holds “study sessions” to help Iris finish high school and apply to college. “I see you and Aubrey wrote that check that your body’s gotta cash now,” she wryly comments. When Iris leaves for Oberlin, Aubrey stays behind in Brooklyn, working in a mailroom beneath the twin towers to raise their daughter. The novel begins and ends with the joyous party—with caterers, orchestra, and dancing—to celebrate the joyful passage to womanhood of the child they all had a share in raising.
The structure of the book is decidedly modernist, following the path blazed by William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and others: each chapter shifts to tell the story of a different character, often narrated in their own voice, thus exploring their unique background, struggles, and contributions. This narrative style is based on the belief that all knowledge of events is subjective and filtered through one person’s perspective. The story unfolds in layers, like peeling an onion, as we travel back through time to learn the life histories of grandparents CathyMarie, Jazzman, Sabe (pron. Say-bee), Po’Boy, and even great-grandmother Melody—our protagonist’s namesake—who barely survived the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. We don’t arrive at the heart of the story until three-quarters of the way through the book—by which point most—but not all—of our questions are finally answered. Timeframes are marked by historical events—such as the 1980s-90s crack epidemic or the September 11 terrorist attacks—and musical references. This structure requires the active participation of the reader, always working to fit together the many disparate pieces of the puzzle.
This bestselling New York Times Notable Book of the Year is by the same author as the 2014 National Book Award winning memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, which is the Jefferson Madison Regional Library (JMRL)’s Same Page community-wide reading series selection for 2021. The Crozet Library Book Group read that last year before the Virginia Festival of the Book was cancelled, so opted to read this more recent adult book this year. In partnership between JMRL and the Virginia Festival of the Book, Woodson will discuss her work—including Red at the Bone as well as Brown Girl Dreaming—on Wednesday, March 16 from 7 to 7:45 p.m. via Zoom. This virtual event is free and open to the public; register at www.jmrl.org/samepage. Earlier the same day, from 2 to 2:30, Woodson will discuss her new book for young readers, Before the Ever After, a novel-in-verse exploring the cost of professional sports on Black bodies and the ways a family moves forward when their glory days have passed. Many other literary events will be available free during this year’s virtual Virginia Festival of the Book, March 13-26, including an evening with National Book Award honorees, a discussion of ‘Indigenous Lit’ with Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, author of Even As We Breathe, a presentation by Alec MacGillis, author of Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, a conversation with crime writers S.A. Cosby (Blacktop Wasteland) and Walter Mosley (Blood Grove), and many more. For a full schedule, visit www.vabook.org.
Woodson’s writing is poetic, lyrical, and spare, with short chapters divided into even shorter paragraphs—sometimes a single line—with as much left unsaid as said. Woodson’s attention to vivid detail draws the reader in and makes for a poignant, heartrending read. “[Aubrey] wanted to know why she was leaving him. They had made something. No, someone. Together. And yeah, they had made something too. A family….that filled every floor of this house, spread out into all the rooms, echoed through the hallways, and yelled up and down the stairs. A family that splashed bathwater onto the floor as they lifted out of tubs. A family that wiped Melody’s mouth and behind and swept up crumbs from around her high chair” (124).
Woodson dedicates Red at the Bone to “the ancestors, a long long line of you bending and twisting”—appropriate to a story about family legacy. Her epigraph explains the title—as well as hinting at the book’s sometimes bleak, bittersweet story—with an exchange between two old men: “Bro, how you doing? You holding on?” The other answers, “Man, you know how it goes. One day chicken. Next day bone.” The characters in this novel experience both; While at Oberlin, Iris feels “red at the bone” when contemplating the end of a relationship. “When I first started writing Red at the Bone,” Woodson writes in her Afterword, “it was because of a question I had been trying to answer for decades—What became of Black wealth?” In the novel, Sabe plans for her family’s future wealth by burying gold bars under the floorboards. Smart woman!
Jacqueline Woodson is the author of more than two dozen award-winning books, including the 2016 New York Times–bestselling National Book Award finalist for adult fiction, Another Brooklyn. Among her many accolades, Woodson is a four-time National Book Award finalist, a four-time Newbery Honor winner, a two-time NAACP Image Award Winner, and a two-time Coretta Scott King Award winner. She was the 2018–2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and in 2015, she was named the Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. In 2020, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—commonly known as a “genius grant”—for “redefining children’s and young adult literature to encompass more complex issues and reflect the lives of Black children, teenagers, and families” (macfound.org). I still remember the first Woodson book I read as a high school librarian, which also dealt sensitively with a compelling social issue: If You Come Softly (1998), about a mixed- race teen relationship and its consequences. Then as now, I am struck by the beauty and courage of Woodson’s work.