The author Jacqueline Woodson has made a career out of breaking down barriers and smashing glass ceilings for children and teens. Her books have been praised, won countless awards and challenged in many of the nation’s schools. Among her nearly 30 titles, her most renowned include “Another Brooklyn,” “Miracle Boys,” and “Brown Girl Dreaming,” a memoir in verse that won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Woodson’s latest, “Red at the Bone,” is her third book for adults but it will appeal to readers of all ages and backgrounds. Skillfully written, it’s a rarity – a family epic in under 200 pages. It tells the story of several generations of a black American family, beginning with the 1921 Race Massacre in Tulsa and ending a couple of years after the 9/11 attacks.
The novel begins in May 2001 during a coming-of-age celebration for Melody, the daughter of Iris and Aubrey. Melody is 16, making her debut, a “ritual of marking class and time and transition.” She’s with family and friends in Brooklyn – familiar Woodson territory – at her grandparents’ elegant ancestral brownstone home where she grew up. She argues with her mother because she wants the musicians to play Prince’s “Darling Nikki” as she descends the stairs to greet her guests. She wears her mother’s debut dress, never worn until now because Iris was pregnant with Melody by the time of her own debut. Melody’s grandmother also wore a white dress for her ceremony when she turned 16. The tradition skipped a generation.
The opening scene sets the tone for what’s to come. The windows of the brownstone have been opened and music pours out over the block; inside, sunshine sparkles on the hardwood floors as Woodson’s characters negotiate joy and sadness. Spinning around on the floor Melody thinks, “As we dance … I am not my parents’ once illegitimate daughter – I am a narrative … Remembered.”
The book’s first word is “But,” a conjunction that breaks all rules of grammar. However, it casts a melancholy spell over the pages that follow, and suggests that trouble may lie in the past or the future or perhaps both. Using different points of view, Woodson observes how Iris’ unplanned teen pregnancy and Melody’s birth affected the lives and opportunities of two families of unequal means. The story shifts from Melody’s perspective to other characters’ voices, jumping back and forth in time – from Iris, to Melody’s father, Aubrey, and his mother Cathy Marie, and her maternal grandparents Sabe, and Sammy “Po’Boy” Simmons – to tell a tale of hope, regret and pain.
Iris and her daughter share a complex history; Melody calls her mother by her first name because Iris, determined to go to Oberlin College, left her over 14 years ago when Melody was an infant. Melody was raised by Iris’ affluent parents, and by Aubrey and his mother who were not so well off. Early in Melody’s life Iris decides that she’s done being maternal. “Was that cruel?” she asks. “To be the child’s mother but even at nineteen have this gut sense she’s done all she could for her?” At Melody’s debut party, Iris longs to feel a sense of attachment to her daughter, but realizes that probably won’t happen. “Love changes and changes,” she says. “Then it changes again. Today, the love is me wanting to see you in that dress. I want to see me in you because Me in that dress was over a long time ago. Sixteen was gone.” Iris abandoned her hopes of reconnecting with her daughter years ago. The author movingly portrays the callousness and liberation of a woman putting herself first, and she disputes the perception that women have to be mothers in any traditional sense, while also showing the pain her mother’s choices cause Melody.
Sabe and Po’Boy, Iris’ parents, are proud of the life they’ve built since they met at Morehouse. When their 15-year-old daughter tells them she’s pregnant, they mourn for Iris’ future-that-might-have-been. “Thought one day she’d grow up and I’d walk her down the aisle and give her away,” her father laments. “Truth is, though, she wasn’t mine to give. Nah sir. She wasn’t mine at all. But it felt like I’d been scaled alive when Sabe told me about (Melody) coming.”
While away at Oberlin after Melody’s birth, Iris maintains only a slight connection to home. The more she stays away from Brooklyn, the more she grows to love her freedom. Finding herself comes at a cost for her daughter; Iris removes herself from any obligation to Melody, who has to grow up quickly.
Woodson, so adept at juggling multiple voices, gives life to the hopes and emotional wounds of each character and she also focuses on the many types of one-sided love.
“I love you so much, Iris,” says Aubrey. “Because maybe this was what love (feels) like – a constant ache, an endless need.”
Aubrey’s unrequited love for Iris is juxtaposed with the deep longing for his daughter to be closer to her mother and of Sabe’s desire for her daughter to have a better life.
One of the strengths of the book is how Woodson adds the music of the time to transport the reader to that era. The blues and jazz resonate throughout the story, and characters dance to songs by Boy George and Tupac. Seeing the songs in the text causes readers to hear the songs in their heads. The narrative addresses culture, music, fashion, politics, racism, gentrification and the LGBT community. As the characters discuss these issues, along with what it means to be in relationship with people you love (or at least to try to love the people you find yourself in relationship with), their inner worlds overlap and sometimes collide with one another. There is pain on these pages, but hope flickers between the lines. In “Red at the Bone” Jacqueline Woodson has created a lovely picture of the way imperfect people live together.