Red At the Bone is the latest novel of over a dozen books written by traditional YA author Jacqueline Woodson. It continues her theme of exploring Black girlhood in America, and if I had to make an update to 7 Books That I Think Black Girls (And Women Who Were Once Black Girls) Should Read, I would add it to that list. However, unlike most of her other books, this one is written for adults. It’s a moving coming of age story brought about when two teens from two different social classes of Black families accidentally get pregnant and become connected forever. As the story is told through multiple eyes and voices, we see how the decision to keep the baby impacts their families across three generations.
The story opens with 16-year-old Melody at her own coming of age celebration (think debutante) at her home in Brooklyn surrounded by her closest friends and family. She is beautiful, smart, and has been raised by her middle-class family with a private school education. As she enters the room, she’s wearing the altered version of the dress that her mother, Iris, never got to wear because she was already pregnant by the time that she was 16. We quickly gather from Melody’s internal dialogue and by the way that she refers to her mother as Iris, that their relationship is a bit estranged. As the story unfolds, with each chapter being delivered from a different perspective, we dive into the memories of each character across the three generations of Melody’s family: herself, her parents, and her grandparents.
For Sabe, whose family barely survived the tragic Tulsa Massacre of 1921, finding out that her 15 year old daughter, Iris, was pregnant after she had worked so tirelessly with her husband Po’Boy to establish themselves in wealth and social standing, remained one of the most disheartening moments of her life. And although her disappointment and despair would grow into an indescribable love for her granddaughter, Woodson beautifully captures her recalling her familial history and these initial feelings in the chapters narrated by Sabe.
“But when your child shows up with a belly and she’s not even full grown yet, you think for a minute that all those blocks of gold don’t mean a damn thing out in the world if you haven’t even taught your own child how to stay pure. How to hold on. How to grow into womanhood right. You cry into the night until your throat is raw and there’s not another heave left inside of you.”
For Aubrey, who was raised in near poverty by his single mother, finding out that his high school sweetheart and the only woman he would ever love was pregnant did more to elevate his life and purpose than anything before. As with most teenage pregnancies, Aubrey did not have to bear the brunt of social shame like Iris and was therefore permitted some normalcy like completing high school and getting a full-time job after graduation. Unlike Aubrey’s own father, he takes to parenthood extremely well and steps up as the full-time parent and devoted dad during Iris’ absences. In this narrative, Woodson takes the teen pregnancy stigma of the mother being left with the responsibility of caring for the child and inverts it. While Iris goes off to college, Aubrey remains in Brooklyn to care for and co-parent with Sabe and Po’Boy.
Perhaps the most important perspective of this less-than-200-page-book – Iris’ character – brings it all together. While initially regarded as an aloof and absent mother, we get the opportunity to view the past through her eyes and gain a better understanding of how things came to be. Intent on her decision to have her baby, Iris hid her pregnancy until it was “too late to do anything about it”, despite the unrequited feelings she knew existed between her and Aubrey. It’s not until Melody arrives that the reality of her decision starts to set in. She is both a child and a mother. She has a baby with a boy who has never known anything else and who she is not in love with.
“No one ever said it to me. That’s why I’m saying it to you. We can talk about this. By the time I was four months pregnant, what I didn’t know was that on the other side of pregnancy there was Motherhood.”
All of these things eventually become push factors for Iris. They become reasons for her to seek out something outside of herself, something that feels like freedom. And so when Melody is 3 years old, she heads off to the farthest college that she was accepted into and leaves her would-be life behind.
"She had outgrown Brooklyn and Aubrey and even Melody. Was that cruel?" Iris asks.
Woodson does not write a dislikeable character in this story. Each character, like regular people, have their own experiences of the past and the truth. Mothers who abandon motherhood are much more taboo and not as accepted as fathers who abandon fatherhood. But in this story, Woodson doesn’t demonize or trivialize any of the characters or their decisions. By traveling through the memories of this family, a small community if you will, readers come to care about and empathize with each of the ways this event plays out for each character. Woodson easily (and subtly) interweaves the complexities of race, class, and gender and hits on respectability politics (Black female sexuality) and the importance of upward mobility for Black families.
For me, Red at The Bone read like one long short story. The language is absolutely beautiful and, in some chapters, even poetic. By the time I got to the end, I was fulfilled in a way that I didn’t expect, especially having read other novels with similar plots. I think that what Woodson does right (among all of the other aforementioned things) is balance that feeling of nostalgia – the one that hurts a little but also feels good. The feeling of not having the one without the other that activates a unique sensation in your heart, or you stomach, or wherever you hold your feelings. There were several one-liners from different characters that jabbed me right in the gut for this reason. It provided a bittersweet familiarity. And I think that perhaps we’ve all felt (or eventually will feel) “red at the bone” – that raw feeling of longing or being undone. But another lesson in this story is that it doesn’t have to stay that way. In fact, it adds to a larger picture that is still unraveling.
Some of my favorite quotes:
I liked this one so much i underlined it in red in my book. It's where I am with my life right now so it felt like a small nod from the Universe:
“Go do something. You don’t have a single excuse not to. Nothings haunting you.”
“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. Guess the sooner you learn that, the sooner you'll have one less heartbreak in your life.”
“Look how beautifully black we are. And as we dance, I am not Melody who is sixteen, I am not my parents’ once illegitimate daughter—I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.”
“Does it sound crazy to say I looked at her and saw the world falling into some kind of order that I didn’t even know it was out of? I wanted it with me, that thing she had inside her that I still can’t explain.”
Have you read this one? What did you think? Do you agree or disagree with my rating?