Book Review: Red At The Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

This was their perfect moment. Another almost-erased history unaborted. And this house with its hundred-plus years. This house with its stained-glass and leaded windows. This house with its generations cheering, saying, Dance, y’all and Ashe and The ancestors are in the house, say what? I and everything and everyone around me was their dream come true now. If this moment was a sentence, I’d be the period.

The sixteen-year-old Melody says, “…I’d be the period,” at her coming-of-age ceremony. It’s not an empty statement that is made by a teenager who thinks that the world revolves around her. Melody is aware of her blackness. Of the race massacre and the fire that her black family survived in Tulsa. Of the constant battle her grandparents fought to weave a net of financial security for their family. Of her father’s childhood in which there were no class privileges. Of her mother’s absence, and the love that could have held them together. But Melody still doesn’t fully grasp the gravity of the impact two teenagers’ curiosity, about sex and biology, had on their lives. Of how something shifted and became even tighter in her grandmother’s heart. Of how something became even tender in her grandfather’s soul. Of how she became everything for her father. And of everything that her mother could have had, and everything that her mother lost.

In less than 200 pages of lyrical writing, Jacqueline Woodson brings every character alive in Red At The Bone. Her entire cast is memorable. Even Baby Benjamin (as my friend Vishy points out here) whose life is described in just a couple of passages. CathyMarie who props up Iris when she didn’t know she needed help. Sabe who won’t stop talking about fire and gold, but she had every reason to keep talking about them. Sabe, who is a staunch Catholic, and her little rebel against the nuns. Never mess with a momma who is grieving her daughter’s lost adolescence. She would brave the inferno to protect her child’s heart. Above all, Iris. She needs a lot of empathy. While every other character gives all their love to what she creates, in the process of creating the very thing, Iris believes she has lost the person whom she could have possibly become. How would she try to become that person when she didn’t have the time and opportunity to meet that person? Through Iris, and her journey toward discovering herself, Woodson explores the themes of sexuality, teenage pregnancy, motherhood, racial identity, and love.

You’re going to learn this. I mean, I hope you learn this. Love changes and changes. Then it changes again.

On the surface, Woodson’s writing looks effortless. The story goes back and forth in time, there are multiple perspectives, but her storytelling doesn’t falter. It doesn’t wait anywhere to take a breath. It unfolds with the confidence of a writer who leans back on her chair, and just let the words flow from her fingertips to the keyboard. The sentences don’t jostle each other. They politely arrive, one after the other, from Woodson’s heart, with a certainty that’s almost magical, as though her Black ancestors themselves want her to tell their stories.

Shoot, I love that people think the world is even halfway ready for what we about to bring.

(I read this gorgeous book along with my friends Vishy and Bina, and we had an extraordinary discussion after that. I feel grateful.)

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Red At The Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

  1. Vishy March 1, 2021 / 1:53 pm

    Wonderful review, Deepika! That quote about the sentence and the period is one of my favourites! I loved what you said about Jacqueline Woodson’s prose! I loved that whole passage! It was so wonderful to read this book alongwith you and Bina and discuss it! Such a wonderful discussion we had! Thanks so much for the discussion and for sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Deepika March 1, 2021 / 1:54 pm

      Thank you, thank you, Vishy. I feel really, really grateful too, for the lovely discussion we had yesterday. 🙂

      Like

  2. Claire 'Word by Word' March 1, 2021 / 10:33 pm

    Oh such a lovely review and that you got to discuss it together. Readalongs are such a lovely thing to do and be part of, whoever imagined that reading could become a community event.
    You readers are so cool.

    Jacqueline Woodson is a wonderful writer, I loved Brown Girl Dreaming.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Deepika March 2, 2021 / 12:15 am

      Thank you, Claire. I am a part of a couple of book clubs, but I have never had a discussion that was so fun and enlightening like the one that I had with Vishy and Bina. I brim with gratitude for the book community I have here. Social media is not entirely diabolical, I have come to believe. 💛 And I haven’t read ‘Brown Girl Dreaming’. I look forward to reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Claire 'Word by Word' March 2, 2021 / 12:21 am

        I often see people saying how much they love bookish twitter and I agree, I know it can be a toxic place, but when you find those whose interests resonate and stay on that subject, it’s magic.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. buriedinprint March 13, 2021 / 1:56 am

    I love that passage too. And I completely agree with the idea that it seems like an effortless story to have told and, yet, you know that it must have gone through many painstaking revisions to look so effortlessly created on the page. Like the story could have simply been told only in this one, particular way. If you haven’t read brown girl dreaming, I think you would love that one too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Deepika March 14, 2021 / 10:12 pm

      Thank you for that lovely comment. I love the idea that one needs to put in more effort to make something look effortless. I definitely want to read ‘Brown Girl Dreaming’. Thank you for the recommendation. 😁

      Liked by 1 person

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