Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson


As I read this short book, I was alarmed at how quickly it was flying by. And after it was finished, I remarked on the intensity with which I felt the presence of each character the author created.

It opens with a chapter narrated by Melody, dressed to the nines for her 16th birthday party in 2001 in the dress her mother would have worn had she not been pregnant with Melody. Subsequent chapters are devoted to each of  the major players in this drama; sometimes they tell their own story, sometimes it’s told about them.

At the heart of the story of this middle class black family is that pregnancy. While Iris was careless in certain respects, she did not intend for the consequences to interfere with her plans. Though she refused to end the pregnancy, she quickly knew she did not want to be limited by the baby or her sweet, good-hearted husband. Aubrey was on the opposite end of the spectrum from Iris in ambition, and he was happy to live with Iris’ parents in Brooklyn, work in Manhattan, and take care of Melody.

Melody’s grandmother Sabe grew up hearing about the massacre of 1921 in Tulsa when whites burned out the affluent black community of Greenwood and killed hundreds of black people. The search for mass graves is in the news this very day. Sabe’s mother had been a small child and woke with nightmares after they had moved to Chicago to rebuild their lives. Sabe took interesting measures so that wealth would be preserved. Even so, her determination and planning couldn’t stop that pregnancy which did not fit in with her plan.

As soon as she could manage it, Iris applied for college,  only those far away from home. Though she did love her baby and Aubrey, she managed never to live with them after she left when Melody was three. Even when they were in Brooklyn and she was in Manhattan, for her it was a different world.

The poignant story of this family ends with Iris and Melody clearing the house in Brooklyn after Sabe died and finding the legacy she left for them. This is an immensely satisfying book.

Jacqueline Woodson, Red at the Bone, Riverhead Books, 2019, 208 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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