‘Red at the Bone’ breaks your heart, but builds you up
Genevieve Coleman | Thursday, September 23, 2021
With Jacqueline Woodson’s visit to Saint Mary’s next week, I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce myself to her writing. Because of Woodson’s extensive collection of published work, I had a hard time choosing what I wanted to read. Interesting in its plot, I ended up reading her 2019 adult novel, “Red at the Bone.”
Even though the novel clocks in at about 200 pages, each chapter continues to build on a moving story about Blackness in America, which spans from the early 20th to the 21st centuries.
The story opens with obvious familial tensions between the narrator Melody, her parents and her grandparents as they are getting ready to celebrate Melody’s 16th birthday.
The reader soon learns that Melody’s mother, Iris, became pregnant with her when she was a teenager and there are still many unresolved feelings about Iris’ choices. Melody’s frustration is clearly directed toward her mother because she calls her Iris repeatedly and respects the decisions of her father over her mother.
As the party starts, Melody’s family members continue the narration, in awe of the fact that Melody is growing up. Each character in the novel — Melody’s father Aubrey, her grandparents Po’Boy and Sabe, Iris — reveals more information about what their lives were like before Melody was born, which serves to highlight what a milestone Melody’s birthday is.
The reader becomes more familiar with both Iris and Aubrey’s families who come from very different backgrounds. Iris’ parents considered Iris a miracle after they lost her older brother Benjamin as an infant. They work tirelessly to provide her stability and support she needs to be become successful and are incredibly disappointed when Iris becomes pregnant as a high school sophomore.
Sabe is still dealing with the trauma of her parents surviving the Tulsa Race Massacre and wants to ensure that her daughter’s future is not tarnished by white supremacy and racism that is woven into the fabric of the country.
While Iris was from a very affluent family, Aubrey grew up with a single mother CathyMarie who was dependent on aid from the government to care for herself and her son. Throughout Aubrey’s life, he struggles with the fact that he has an absent father. When Aubrey searches for him as an adult, he learns that his father overdosed before he could connect with him, which seems to weigh on him when he becomes a father himself.
Despite Sabe’s objections, her classmates’ racial microaggressions and her subsequent expulsion from her Catholic school, Iris chooses to keep the baby. Iris’ pregnancy is not an easy one because of her age and her doctors not believing her pain levels during labor.
An especially poignant moment in the novel is when Iris names her baby Melody after her great aunt who almost died in Tulsa, signaling her wish for Melody’s resilience in a harsh world. This almost seems to be undermined when Iris chooses to move away to attend college and leaves Melody to be cared for by Aubrey and her parents. While it is admirable that Iris is wanting to pursue a higher education, Aubrey and Melody are deeply hurt by her sudden departure and later return.
Overall, “Red at the Bone” beautifully explores Melody’s family as they experience racial discrimination. The reader grieves alongside the family as they go through loss on significant scales, especially near the end of the novel. However, there are many moments that both bolster the tone of the story and strength of the characters.
In this gripping story about the power of history, Woodson reminds the reader of the hope that comes with each new generation and bonds that tie us all together.
Title: “Red at the Bone”
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Genre: Historical fiction, coming-of-age story
If You Liked: “Brown Girl Dreaming,” “Such a Fun Age”
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5