Red at the Bone: A Novel

by Jacqueline Woodson

Hardcover, 2019

Call number



Riverhead Books (2019), Edition: First Edition, 208 pages


"An extraordinary new novel about the influence of history on a contemporary family, from the New York Times-bestselling and National Book Award-winning author of Another Brooklyn and Brown Girl Dreaming. Two families from different social classes are joined together by an unexpected pregnancy and the child that it produces. Moving forward and backward in time, with the power of poetry and the emotional richness of a narrative ten times its length, Jacqueline Woodson's extraordinary new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of this child. As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody's coming of age ceremony in her grandparents' Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the soundtrack of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody's mother, for her own ceremony-- a celebration that ultimately never took place. Unfurling the history of Melody's parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they've paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives--even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
This is the story of Iris, and of her parents and of her daughter. It's the story of Aubrey, the father of her daughter, and of his mother. This is a family saga and despite it being told sparely, it digs into the experiences and lives of the family over three generations with depth and compassion.

Iris grows up in a neighborhood in Brooklyn, nurtured by her solidly middle class parents. Her mother holds her own mother's memories of the Tulsa Massacre, when an entire community was destroyed and her father has worked hard to raise his family into the middle class. She's about to have her coming out party, when she becomes pregnant and that event never occurs. Within a few months, she goes from a girl with everything to look forward to, to the girl parents warn their children about. But her story doesn't end there, and while her path forward isn't easy, or without harm done, she perseveres.

Woodson's writing is beautiful. There isn't a single unnecessary word in this novel. She has a talent for bringing her characters to life in very few words and of making their experiences vivid to the reader.
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LibraryThing member katiekrug
I can’t do this book justice. It’s a lyrical exploration of family, expectation, and disappointment. Stories are shared from various points of view - Melody, just turned 16; her mostly-absent mother; her loving father; and her devoted grandparents. Through short vignettes, we learn of the complicated history of these characters, how they are connected, and how they pull against the obligations of those connections. It’s beautifully done. In under 200 pages, Woodson gives us a complete portrait of one family coming to terms with disappointed expectations, the burden of history, and unintended consequences.… (more)
LibraryThing member msf59
“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.”

“If this moment was a sentence, I’d be the period.”

This begins, as a coming of age story, with sixteen year old Melody, celebrating with her family in Brooklyn. Then the narrative shifts to different members of Melody's family, examining their own lives and decisions, good and bad, that helped develop them, into the people they became. The author explores a myriad amount of issues, like class, status, race, sex, parenthood and identity, perfectly folded into a tidy two hundred pages.
This is my third outing, by Woodson, and each one is a marvel of delicate prose, directing a loving spotlight on the African-American experience.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
Woodson tells the history of three generations of a middle class African-American family in this very short novel (I finished it in two days, and that was not constant reading). It begins at Melody's sixteenth birthday debut party. Waiting to make her entrance to Prince's "Daring Nikki," she's wearing a white dress originally made for her mother's debut but never worn as Iris became a mother at age 15. The narrative shifts not only chronologically but among a number of characters: Melody; her father Aubrey, who comes from a lower socioeconomic class; Iris; PoBoy ad Sabe, Iris's parents; and a third person narrator. It's the story of how history repeats itself--and how sometimes it doesn't. But even more, it's the story of one family's resilience. Iris's parents had high hopes for their academically smart and beautiful daughter, and neither their hopes nor hers would be extinguished by an unexpected pregnancy--a good thing, because clearly Iris clearly was not cut out to be a mother. After her Catholic school expelled her, she was tutored by Aubrey's mother, a nurse, and while Aubrey moves in with Sabe and Po'Boy to help raise Melody, Iris follows through on her plans to attend college, choosing Oberlin mainly because of its distance from the family home in New York.

In the course of this short novel, the family suffers many tragedies and some triumphs. Woodson addresses a number of significant questions and themes, including teenage pregnancy, racism, the meanings of motherhood and family in contemporary society, the role of education,gender and gender roles, personal freedom v. responsibility, and more. I admire Woodson's style but think the book might have benefited from fleshing out the characters a bit more. iris is the most fully developed, but I empathized most with Aubrey and would have liked more background on the lives of Sabe and Po'Boy.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
I loved it. Loved everything about this book. The gorgeous prose. The way in just a relatively few pages, Woodsen managed to flesh out her characters, making them autentic people. The themes explored. Themes of mother, daughter relationships, teenage pregnant, ambition, fatherhood and sexual identity. The many different emotions she manages to provoke, emotions that changed as the story progressed. How young people make decisions about their lives, things that will affect them in the future, not realizing what that entails. So many issues are covered, yet done so well that it never felt crowded. Life and death, lives lived. Some give up more for love, some are not able to give enough.
I loved it because it felt authentic, real.

"Something about memory. It takes you back to where you were, and just lets you be there for a while."

A much better read for my reading buddies, Angela, Lise and myself.

ARC from Netgalley and Riverhead books.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
I received this book through a Goodreads Giveaway, that fact did not have impact on this review

I am a great fan of Woodson's writing. Her stories are powerful, and manage to be intimate while touching on universal themes. Culture, community, love, loss, and of course the fact we don't know what we got til its gone (thanks Joni Mitchell.) Woodson's characters are so fully developed, though this book, like her others is extremely short. Woodson's facility with language is breathtaking. I find more and more that I am drawn to the prose of poets, who tend to write with great precision, economy and beauty. I just next book onto my bag, and I already feel sorry for it -- Red at the Bone is a tough act to follow.… (more)
LibraryThing member froxgirl
This story of four generations of a black family emphasizes the urgent, unending, and unbelievably difficult task of avoiding the traps set in white America. A momentous decision made by a fifteen year old Brooklyn girl changes the course of her family forever, for better, and for worse in the 1980s, when Iris and boyfriend Aubrey become teenage parents. When Iris’s condition becomes obvious, her parents Sabe and Po'Boy flee to another neighborhood to avoid the shame, and Sabe takes secret actions to ensure that the family will always remain whole and strong. Adamant about having the baby but just as determined to keep her life on course, Iris leaves daughter Melody with her parents and Aubrey to raise while she leaves for college, far away from her family, Brooklyn, and from responsibility for anyone but herself. Aubrey, Sabe, and Po'Boy raise Melody and the novel opens in 2001, with her cotillion appearance, wearing the fancy party dress made for her mother Iris, before her condition prevented her from being presented to the community as was customary. And despite her determination, events thwart Saba’s intent to keep her kin close and safe.

The most vivid retelling is Sabe’s lookback to the Tulsa massacre of 1921, when whites rioters resentful of the success of her family and other black entrepreneurs in Greenwood, the "Black Wall Street", use a flimsy Emmett-Till-like false premise to burn businesses and murder hundreds. And the most unique and remarkable facet of the fine writing we always expect from Woodson is her ability to give true and full voice to every character so that the story is rounded and complete, including a few unpredictable surprises.
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LibraryThing member miss.mesmerized
When Iris gets pregnant at the age of fifteen, she only takes in the fact that she and her boyfriend Aubrey are going to have a baby. What this really means for her life, she cannot assess at that moment. Sixteen years later, her daughter Melody is having her coming-of-age-party wearing the dress that was once meant for her mother. Not just Iris’s life takes another road with the unexpected kid, also her parents’ plans and of course those of Aubrey and his family change due to the new situation and all of them also have to face the world outside their family bubbly where not everybody is totally understanding. A novel about family bonds and about what influence a single human being can have on how you live your life.

Jacqueline Woodson has chosen a discontinuous mode of narration. Not only does she spring back and forward chronologically, but she also gives different characters a voice and also has a 3rd person narrator tell parts of the plot. This makes the whole story quite lively and often unexpected because at the beginning of each chapter you do not know where you are starting from and who is addressing you.

There are some central topics focussed on, first of all, of course, the teenager falling pregnant. The family manages the situation perfectly, no major fight or disruption arises from Iris’s decision to keep the baby, but it is hard to read about the reactions of her friends and school, even though I would classify it as highly authentic. The only person really struggling with the new-born, yet, is Iris who can never really bond with her daughter. She puts some effort in their relationship, but it is simply never enough and she most certainly suffers from the chances that she in her own perception never had in her life due to becoming a mother that early – admittedly, I had the impression that life could be much worse under these circumstances and Iris had a lot of opportunities to fulfil her dreams.

Another aspect are the class-related and skin-colour attributed options in life. These do not determine the characters’ fate, yet provide some food for thought as do family relations in general in the novel.

The novel offers a lot of blind spots, leaves gaps that you have to fill on your own due to the structure of the narration. I actually liked it because it makes you think on after reading and sticking with the book much longer. I also enjoyed Jacqueline Woodson’s style e of writing which is well adapted to the different characters and authentic.
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LibraryThing member sleahey
Although this novel opens with 16-year-old Melody about to celebrate her coming of age debut, the story revolves around the extended family and how they arrived at this day. Melody is wearing the dress that her mother Iris would have worn for her own celebration if only she hadn't gotten pregnant. Melody's father Aubrey has been a stabilizing influence in her life, even after Iris left them and went to Oberlin for college, where she fell in love with another woman student. The characters are complex and sympathetic, and not only do we learn why Iris and Aubrey took separate paths, but also about Melody's maternal grandparents and paternal grandmother. This is a lyrical and rich novel for adults, with crossover appeal for mature teenagers.… (more)
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Red at the Bone is a beautiful, moving portrait of a family. Iris gave birth to her daughter Melody when she was only 15 years old. When the book opens, Melody is making an entrance at her Sweet Sixteen formal. Through short, lyrical chapters set in different points in time, we learn about Iris’ early relationship with Melody’s father, Aubrey, and Iris’ dogged determination to pursue a college education despite the responsibilities of motherhood. We see Iris’ parents, Sabe and Po’Boy, moving from disappointment in Iris’ pregnancy to deep, abiding love for their granddaughter.

Jacqueline Woodson writes with a poetic style that flows effortlessly across the page, delivering a story packed with emotion whether describing the love between two people, or the tragedy and loss the family faced over the years. Just beautiful.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
Not sure how I chose this book but I am glad that I did. It is a short novel from an author who is both a poet and an author of novels geared toward adolescents. This book deals with Afro-American families in Brooklyn in 2001. It moves back and forth in time and the language of the author is beautiful. The story deals with Iris and Aubrey whose 16 year old daughter Melody is having her coming out party. This event is the springboard to a story that involves the history of Iris and Aubrey who had Melody when they were 16 year old teenagers. They come from different background and we see how difficult the decision to have Melody was and its impacts on both families. The story is told through the 1st person voices of many characters and it gives the reader a good insight into parenthood as seen through the eyes of this different characters. This is a short book so give it a shot. You won't be disappointed.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookworm12
An incredibly quick read, but a powerful one. The narrative skips around in the timeline of one family. Iris, a 16-year-old girl, finds herself pregnant and we learn about her parents, her life in college, and her daughter Melody. The writing is lyrical and the story packs and emotional punch with a tie to 9/11.
LibraryThing member villemezbrown
I find it hard to resist short books that seem to have some buzz going. This one is a character study of the revelations and repercussions of a teen pregnancy on two African American families, at the time of the pregnancy and 16 years later during the child's debutante party.

The writing style was a bit confusing at times, with an absence of quotation marks (who decided they were a bad thing) and frequent unlabelled shifts in character perspectives. But the characters were rich in personality even if the story is a pretty plotless and low-key domestic drama.

And with lots of blank pages and loads of white space on many pages, it is at least a quick read, easily finished in a weekend.
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LibraryThing member bookwyrmm
A quick, moving, and very poetic read.
LibraryThing member Hccpsk
Whether the final product is verse or prose, literary or YA fiction, Jacqueline Woodson is a powerful and beautiful writer. Her latest adult novel, Red at the Bone, tells the story of a multi-generational family through snippets of narrative told by a variety of characters. Glimpses of historical events (Tulsa race riots, 9/11) anchor the text as it skims over their relationships, births, and deaths. I would read anything by Woodson as her writing makes the mundane enjoyable, but Red at the Bone is definitely missing something. Like her last adult novel, Another Brooklyn, Red at the Bone is short and felt more like a novella than a fully fleshed book, but I still recommend it. Even lacking a certain development and wishing for more story, Woodson’s effort is worth reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
It's a special day. Three generations spend the day reminiscing about the choices and consequences that led to this day. A beautiful, black, sixteen year old inspired love and memories. I listened to the audio version of this lovely book. Fabulous voices brought each character to life and brought lyricism to the prose. This is a novel about family, memory, choices & consequences. Absolutely lovely.… (more)
LibraryThing member JesseTheK
Lovely writing. Follows the life of a family and provides much insight into how families don’t understand each other. Read in audiobook, and the inability to skim back may have supported my confusion about which character talking win.
LibraryThing member ML923
A wonderful piece of literature written in gorgeous prose. A quick but beautiful read!
LibraryThing member bibliovermis
Other books I've read by Jacqueline Woodson have been for a younger audience and have been very good. This was the first of her works for an older audience that I read, and it was also very good. I was impressed by her ability to work from the perspectives of these characters who are very different, though united by love and family.… (more)
LibraryThing member novelcommentary
"I see you and Aubrey wrote that check that your body’s gotta cash now, she said, pointing her chin toward Iris’s belly."

I just finished my third book by Jacqueline Woodson entitled Red at the Bone,and I am here to highly recommend a fine novel. Woodson uses various narrators and various points of view (all within the same family )to tell the story of Iris and her daughter Melody. It begins with Melody, in 2001, her 16th birthday cotillion, wearing the dress that Iris should’ve worn if she hadn’t gotten pregnant with the same girl that’s currently descending the stairs of their Brooklyn home. Included in the narration are Iris' mother, Sabe, her father Po'boy, and her boyfriend, Aubrey. Iris was Aubrey's first sexual encounter, but for him early fatherhood was never the issue. Iris liked him though he was never the one she chose to be with forever: "she had never imagined Aubrey being the end of the line for her. An eternity with him had not been a part of her plan, whether or not she’d taken his cherry. As the acceptance letters started coming in, first Barnard, then Vassar, and finally Oberlin, she saw the chance to unrut herself. She saw the way out." Aubrey‘s character is perhaps the most noble, coming from a poor single parent family and eventually moving in with Iris' when his mother dies and taking care of Melody while her mother goes off to college. This is an unusual mother daughter relationship, but more important than the storyline is that the writing is wonderful; each character adding to the complexity of the situation. Woodson's novel was very reminiscent of Toni Morrison and you couldn’t ask for a more noble voice to take the place of one of our greatest writers.
Some lines:

Bro, how you doing? You holding on? Man, you know how it goes. One day chicken. Next day bone.

He had spent his childhood on a diet of Reagan’s cheese and Taystee Bread with the occasional roast beef boiled to chewing gum. His mother didn’t care much about cooking, and on a good evening—payday or when her income tax return came in—the two of them sat at the table, peeling back foil-covered TV dinners, talking softly through mouthfuls of Salisbury steak and scorched mashed potatoes.

Po’Boy puts his arm around my shoulder and I reach up for his hand. Feel the arthritis bending the bones in his fingers. Feel the thinness of his body that is cancer eating its way from inside to out and know I’ll be growing old without him. No green drinks or raw diet or holistic doctor over on Flatbush Avenue seems to be helping him. Po’Boy wasting away.

The baby’s eyes carried everything in them—they were almond shaped like her own, but for the few minutes they remained open, she could see that they were already a deep brown strangely flecked with green. The eyes were too beautiful. Too hungry. As they fluttered up toward Iris’s own while she nursed, it was hard not to look back into them.

He didn’t like the way they shaped her legs beneath her tights and lifted her feet off the ground just enough to promise something.

She felt red at the bone—like there was something inside of her undone and bleeding.
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LibraryThing member detailmuse
An exploration of family and race and class, narrated in vignettes by multi-generational members of a multi-racial family who have experienced consecutive teen pregnancies. There was a slight narrative arc, but mostly each vignette was simply lovely with revelations of character and historical backstory.
LibraryThing member KimMeyer
Jacqueline Woodson never lets me down.
LibraryThing member kglattstein
This book tells a story of a family who comes together to raise a baby and relates how their pasts reflect in their actions and attitudes. Initially I found the writing lyrical and engaging - I didn‚Äôt want to put it down. I felt like I was in the room watching Melody walk down the stairs with a glimpse into all of her loved ones emotions and memories that reflect on this moment. I enjoyed the weaving of the stories of each of the characters and glimpses of their shared moments and how they touched each other‚Äôs lives . Unfortunately , the story seemed to loose its rhythm as the author wrapped up each life. I felt it was incomplete even though each person story was completed .… (more)
LibraryThing member Zoes_Human
An achingly beautiful story written with lush and poetic prose. Through an intergenerational lens we see the shaping of a child through family history both known and unknown. The loveliest of storytelling.

Content Warning: one brief scene of familial violence, parent to child
LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
I listened to the audiobook and it was over in about 4 hours. For me, there could have been a lot more to tell. The characters alternate narratives and time periods which adds to the development of them as well as to the plot. The author accomplished a lot in 200 pages. Ultimately, it's about race and class and how where we are from is not necessarily where we'll end up. The words are often poetic and beautiful which left me wanting more.… (more)




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