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.)