Family history and the family dynamics of two merging black families are at the core of this completely enthralling novel. The two families, both living in Brooklyn, come from different social backgrounds. Woodson, known more for her works of fiction for young adults, steps into literary fiction for only the second time with “Red at the Bone,” and she does so with grace as well as unflinching grit. When 15-year-old Iris becomes pregnant, her middle class parents’ world is rocked. So too are the plans of Malcolm, her boyfriend and his single mom. How they all navigate this new territory, yet fully embrace the baby who becomes a lovely young girl, is true and beautiful. In some ways, young Malcolm is a better father than Iris a mother, but in their own way, the whole family pitches in to ensure Iris graduates and attends college, while giving Melody the best life possible. It may be more a matter of Malcolm enjoying and embracing fatherhood. He’s content to not go to college and to focus on an unambitious career, but respectable work that supports his daughter. Where he relishes his time with Melody, Iris loves at a distance and desires to complete her education.
While the family, including Malcolm’s mom, is proud to see Iris succeed in college as did her own parents, it ultimately cause a schism between she and her daughter. Iris jumps at the opportunity to go far from her daughter and her Brooklyn life of responsibilities and duties well beyond her young age. She selects a school out of state and sometimes doesn’t come home during breaks. Initially she seems to thrive at Oberlin, never acknowledging the life and daughter she left behind and embracing her studies. She even when she finds love with a female classmate, but eventually she cannot deny her home, her family and her history. In Iris’s absence, she and Melody grow apart while Melody’s bond with her father and grandparents deepens. In time though, the mother and daughter will find their way back to each other, and the journey there is a precious reading experience.
This is a sweet and welcome approach to a rare portrayal of a black family in contemporary literary fiction. Throughout the story and in both families separate and intertwining lives, Woodson’s prose is rich and lyrical and she tells the story from several points of view, switching back and forth like narrators on a great stage having their say. She paints fully drawn, intriguing characters, wonderfully and effectively alluring readers into the lives, past and present. Subtly and sometimes obviously, she dabbles the atmosphere with elements unique to black families and communities, such as seen early on in the story just before Melody prepares to descend the staircase of their home to her sweet sixteen, coming out party.
And in the room, there was the pink and the green of my grandmother’s sorority, the black and gold of my grandfather’s Alpha brothers- gray-haired and straight-backed, flashing gold capped teeth and baritone A-Phi A! As I made my entrance. High pitched calls of Skee-wee answering back to them. Another dream for me in their calling out to each other. “Of course you’re gonna pledge one day,” my grandmother said to me over and over again. When I was child, she surprised me once with a gift-wrapped hoodie, pale pink with My Grandmother is An AKA in bright green letters. “That’s just legacy, Melody,” she said. …Look back at me on that last day in May. Finally sixteen and the moment like a hand holding me out to the world. Rain giving way to a spectacular sun.
Reading “Red at the Bone” is like wrapping yourself in a warm, smooth shawl, with characters you can relate to, love or love to hate. and at less than 200 pages, you will want to experience it more than once.