Red at the Bone

A Novel
Hardcover

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AN INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

One of OPRAH MAGAZINE’S "BEST BOOKS OF 2019"

NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR

"An exquisite tale of family legacy….The power and poetry of Woodson’s writing conjures up Toni Morrison." – People
 
"In less than 200 sparsely filled pages, this book manages to encompass issues of class, education, ambition, racial prejudice, sexual desire and orientation, identity, mother-daughter relationships, parenthood and loss….With Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson has indeed risen — even further into the ranks of great literature." – NPR
 
"This poignant tale of choices and their aftermath, history and legacy, will resonate with mothers and daughters." –Tayari Jones, bestselling author of An American Marriage, in O Magazine

An unexpected teenage pregnancy pulls together two families from different social classes, and exposes the private hopes, disappointments, and longings that can bind or divide us from each other, from the New York Times-bestselling and National Book Award-winning author of Another Brooklyn and Brown Girl Dreaming. A beautiful holiday gift. 
 
Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson's taut and powerful 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 the new 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 music 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.

Praise

Praise for Red at the Bone:

"Profoundly moving ... With its abiding interest in the miracle of everyday love, Red at the Bone is a proclamation."  —The New York Times Book Review

"A spectacular novel that only [a] legend can pull off, one that wrenches us to confront the life-altering and life-pulling and life-subsuming facts of history, of love, of expectations, of status, of parenthood." – Ibram X. Kendi in The Atlantic
 
"A treasure awaits readers who encounter Red at the Bone….A universal American tale of striving, failing, then trying again." —Time

"Sublime….This short novel contains immense empathy for each member of its wide ensemble. Thus, as Woodson covers nearly a century, from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre to 9/11, her grasp of history’s weight on individuals — and definitive feel for borough life, past and present — proves to be as emotionally transfixing as ever." —Entertainment Weekly
 
"Red at the Bone is a narrative steeped in truth...Thank you, Ms. Woodson, for leading me home." —The Washington Post

"Red at the Bone is a slim novel that has all the heft of a family saga but reads like poetry... Woodson nailed the ending, leaving me thoroughly satisfied and awed by her talent." – Lynn Neary, NPR

"Lyrical, dreamy, and brimming with compassion for her characters." –Esquire

"[Red at the Bone] subtly explores the ways in which desire can reconfigure our best-laid plans, and its expansive outlook suggests how easily, in African-American life, hard-won privileges can be dissolved."—The New Yorker

"Vast emotional depth, rich historical understanding and revelatory pacing ... Woodson draws the profound magic out of the ordinary. She is unmatched in her ability to evoke emotion."—The San Francisco Chronicle
 
"A remarkable, intergenerational harmony of voices. At its center is hope for both individual and hereditary survival."—USA Today
 
"Gorgeous, moving…A story of love—romantic and familial—and alienation, grief and triumph, disaster and survival." Nylon 
 
"Red at the Bone breaks down the ways in which parenthood changes people for both better and worse and what it means to find your true identity." —Parade 
 
"Slender miracle of a novel [that] performs a magic trick with time….Woodson skips back and forth between the decades so deftly that it feels like it all happens in a heartbeat." —Family Circle

Excerpt

1

 

But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing. Music filling the brownstone. Black fingers pulling violin bows and strumming cellos, dark lips around horns, a small brown girl with pale pink nails on flute. Malcolm's younger brother, his dark skin glistening, blowing somberly into a harmonica. A broad-shouldered woman on harp. From my place on the stairs, I could see through the windows curious white people stopping in front of the building to listen. And as I descended, the music grew softer, the lyrics inside my head becoming a whisper, I knew a girl named Nikki, guess you could say she was a sex fiend.

No vocalist. The little girl didn't know the words. The broad-shouldered woman, having once belted them out loud while showering, was now saved and refused to remember them. Iris wouldn't allow them to be sung and Malcolm's brother's sweet seven-year-old mouth was full. Still, they moved through my head as though Prince himself were beside me. I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine.

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 a 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. I pledged, your grandfather pledged-

 

Iris didn't.

 

A pause. Then quietly, her lips at my ear, That's because your mama isn't legacy.

This, I whispered back to her, quoting her sorority mantra, is a serious matter.

My grandmother laughed and laughed.

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. Its rays speckling through the stained glass, dancing off the hardwood floors. The orchestra's music lifting through the open windows and out over the block as though it had always belonged to the Brooklyn air. Look at me. Hair flat-ironed and curling over my shoulders. Red lipstick, charcoaled eyes. The dress, Iris's dress, unworn in her closet until that moment. Already, when it was time for her ceremony, I was on my way. Already, at nearly sixteen, her belly told a story a celebration never could. My grandfather's oversize dress shirts backdropping the baby fat still pouting her cheeks, the fine lanugo hair still clinging to the nape of her neck. Still, that afternoon, the years that separated us could have been fifty-Iris standing at the bottom of the stairs watching me. Me looking away from her. Where was I looking? At my father? My grandparents? At anything. At anyone. But her.

Earlier that day, she came into my room as I pulled stockings over my thighs, attempted to clip them to an ivory gartered corset. These too had once belonged to her-unworn, still boxed and wrapped with tissue paper. The fragile stocking struggling against being locked into the garter-this I had learned from my grandmother-and she from her mother and on back-mine the only ceremony skipping a generation of mothers showing daughters. This-the corset wearing, the garters, the silk stockings-was as old as the house my father and I shared with my grandparents. This ritual of marking class and time and transition stumbled back into the days of cotillions, then morphed and morphed again until it was this, some forgotten ancestor's gartered corset-and a pair of new silk stockings, delicate as dust.

I guess you win this round, she said. Prince it is.

I looked up at her. The evening before she'd twisted her hair into tight pin curls, and standing before me, she began to pull them loose, her thick reddish hair springing into coils down over her ears. The baby fat long gone from her cheeks, replaced by high, stunning bones. I pressed my hand against my own face, felt the same structure beneath my skin.

I didn't know it was a competition, Iris.

Once, a long time ago, she was Mommy and I held her neck, her arms, her belly tight with dimpled baby hands. I remember that. How I reached and reached and reached for her. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy.

The dress, white and unworn, lay spread out on the bed beside me. Behind it, a framed poster of Rage Against The Machine's 1997 concert. My father and I went because Wu-Tang was opening. I was twelve then and the two of us yelled and rapped and cheered so hard, we both stayed home the next day drinking lemon-honey tea to nurse our sore throats. The poster was professionally framed-the red letters against a gray matte, the oversize black frame picking up the muted colors of the black-and-white photograph. Beside it, another poster. If someone said choose between your mom and dad, I wouldn't need to blink. Wouldn't stutter. I'd run like a little kid and jump into my daddy's arms.

Feels like it's always a competition these days. Somewhere along the way, I became your enemy. She pressed her hand to her throat and held it there, her fingers gently moving across her collarbone as though she were checking to see if it remained intact. A gold bracelet slid down away from her wrist. Tiny diamonds catching the light. I swallowed, at once envying and adoring all the ways in which the word lovely could refer to my mother. So strange still, how different we were.

I had given up on trying to negotiate the stockings into the ridiculous garters and was just sitting there staring at her, elbows on my thighs, hands hanging down.

I don't get it. This is my ceremony and you're trying to be stuck about the music. You blew yours, remember-

No, the baby in my belly blew mine. Remember?

Don't even, Iris. Then for a moment, like so many times before this, I lost the words. Watched them drop . . . No. Dissipate . . . from the air between us. Dissipate. The word had shown up on my SAT prep tests again and again until it landed in this room with us. Between my mother. And me. Don't even. I didn't ask to be born. I didn't say-I didn't say do what you and my dad were doing. You could have waited.

Iris raised an eyebrow at me. I know you're not trying to have some kind of abstinence conversation with me.

You could have. There wasn't some rush to do what you guys did.

You mean have sex? Can you really not even say it? Sex, Melody. It's just a three-letter word.

I can say it. I just don't need to right now.

And if we had . . . waited, as you say. Where would you be?

You regret the hell out of me.

Don't curse. I don't regret you. I couldn't imagine this world without you in it.

Then what is it?

She came over to the bed, sat down on the other side of the dress, and ran her hand longingly over it. There were crocheted white flowers at the wrist. The attached train had alternating silk and satin panels. The seamstress had already been working on it for months before my grandparents found out Iris was pregnant. By the time she started showing, the dress was almost done and paid for.

 

I don't know . . . , she said more to the dress than to me. It's Prince. It's my parents. It's your father. It's me. It's you already sixteen now. Where did all those years go? It's crazy.

There was a catch in her voice I didn't want to hear. Didn't want to deal with. Not now. Not on my day.

It's just Prince, for fuck's sake! It's not like I'm asking to walk in to N.W.A. or Lil' Bow Wow-

Stop cursing, Melody. You're better than that. And N.W.A., Lil' whatever . . . I don't even know what you're saying. She didn't look at me, just continued to run her hand back and forth over the dress. We had the same fingers, long and thin. Piano fingers, people said. But only she played.

I'm just saying it's Prince. And it's my ceremony and he's a genius so why are we even still talking about it? You already nixed the words. Let me at least have the music. Daddy doesn't care. He likes Prince too. Jeez!

For too long we said nothing. There was something moving through me like a razor in my chest-I didn't know then if it was rage or sadness or fear. Maybe Iris felt it too because she moved closer to me, rested her hand on the back of my neck, and pressed her lips into my hair. I wanted more, though-a hug, a kindness whispered into my ear. I wanted her to tell me I was beautiful, that she didn't care what music played, that she loved me. I wanted her to laugh with me about the ridiculousness of garters and stockings.

But instead, she got up, went over to the window, and pulled the curtain back. She stared down at the block as she freed the rest of her curls. It was gray out, drizzling. Downstairs, the orchestra had arrived. I could hear bows being pulled across violins. Could hear my grandfather playing Monk on the piano and imagined his dark fingers, knotted at the knuckles.

Do you like Malcolm?

She turned back to me. Her skin creased at the brow, her eyes-eyes I'd prayed for as a child, Please God let me wake up with Mommy's pretty amber eyes-red-veined now. Please God don't ever let me have eyes like her eyes are right now.

Malcolm? Sure. Yeah. He's still such a sweetie. She looked at me, her mouth turning up into a half smile.

What?

What exactly are you asking me, Melody?

Do you like him . . . for me? Do you think he's a good- I don't know.

 

I looked up at her. Who else was there to ask who had lived through it all? From beginning to baby. First kiss to hands on a body to sex. How did you even begin it? Keep it going? Wasn't it supposed to be now that she gave me the answers. Told me everything?

You guys have known each other since you were in diapers and he's always been . . . I mean, isn't he?

Isn't he what?

Nothing. Never mind. She put her hands up, surrendering. He seems, she said again, smiling. You just don't seem . . . his type.

Like you would know anything about him. Or me.

Like I said, I've known that boy since he was in diapers.

Yeah, Iris. Both of us were in diapers a long time ago.

We got quiet. Maybe all over the world there were daughters who knew their mothers as young girls and old women, inside and out, deep. I wasn't one of them. Even when I was a baby, my memory of her is being only halfway here.

I hid you from them, you know, she said-like she was looking into my head finally. Seeing something there. That's how you got here. They were hella good Catholics back then, but you would have been dust.

From who?

Whom, Melody. It's whom.

I was starting to sweat beneath the corset.

Your grandparents. Your beloved grandparents.

You didn't know. You told me you didn't know.

I never said I didn't know. I said I didn't know what to do.

She stopped talking suddenly and looked at me. Hard.

Is your period regular?

What . . . yeah! What the heck, Iris?

She exhaled. Shook her head. Okay, so if you have a regular period and then it just stops and it's not stopping because you're suddenly a super athlete or something-then you're probably pregnant. I'm just saying that to you in case no one else does-

I covered my ears. I'm good. Don't need to hear this. Not today. Not from you. Thanks.

No one ever said it to me. That's why I'm saying it to you. We can talk about this. By the time I was four months pregnant, what I didn't know was that on the other side of pregnancy there was Motherhood.

Of course it was, I said.

Of course it is, she said. I know that now.

How could you not know- You know what- Never mind. I don't get you.

The orchestra was warming up with "Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time." I could hear my grandfather singing the words along with Malcolm's little brother. One voice high. The other low. One voice young and unsure, the other old and clear and deep. I closed my eyes for a minute. The song was older than everyone in the house. When the trumpeter picked up a solo and the music lifted past where the voices had just been, I felt like my ribs were shattering. There was so much in all of it. Just. So. Much. I wanted to say to Iris, It all feels like it's trying to drift out into somebody's eternity. But when I looked up at her again, she was biting the edge of her thumbnail, her left eyebrow jumping the way it did when she was stressing.

I told Aubrey, she said, moving her finger away from her mouth and studying it. And then both of us made believe it wasn't happening for a few months. Because we were kids thinking that if we ignored it, it would go away. I hid you until I couldn't anymore, wearing your granddad's button-down shirts, telling him it was the style.

Did you want to miscarry me?

I was a child, Melody. I was younger than you are now! I wanted to see you born. I wanted to hold you. I was stunned that it was true-that you could have sex with someone and that sex could make another human.

I tried to imagine her in my grandfather's clothes. Everything about her was feminine and tailored and perfect. Everything about her felt the opposite of me. I could imagine me in my grandfather's clothes. But not her.

I wanted you. I wanted you growing in my body, I wanted you in my arms, I wanted you over my shoulder-

She got quiet.

And then the wanting was gone, wasn't it?

She shook her head. More time passed before she spoke again.

It wasn't gone. Just different. You're going to learn this. I mean, I hope you learn this. Love changes and changes. Then it changes again. Today, the love is me wanting to see you in that dress, she said. I want to see me in you because Me in that dress was over a long time ago. Sixteen was gone. Then seventeen, eighteen-all of it.

Reader's Guide

1. In Red at the Bone, two families from different social classes are brought together by an unexpected pregnancy. How do you think the lives of the characters—from each family—might have been different if Melody had never been conceived? Which characters gained or lost the most, ultimately, as a result of this unplanned child? Consider all the many ways in which their fortunes were altered.

2. Consider the title and how it works with the story. Why do you think the author chose it? What does the phrase mean to you?

3. The author dedicates the book to “the ancestors, a long long line of you bending and twisting.” How does the story explore the idea of legacy? How does it look at the passing down of regret and loss and trauma and history, and also of love and guidance and wisdom and experience? Discuss your own legacies: What have you inherited in this way from your ancestors, and what will be passed on to future generations? How do these legacies compare to the legacies in Red at the Bone?

4. The story begins and ends in Brooklyn, but incorporates the stories of how both Iris and Aubrey’s families came to live there, and also watches Iris experiment with living elsewhere. In your own experience, how strong or important is the connection between people and place? Do you think people and their lives are shaped by their relationships with the places they are from and their feelings about home? Do you see this illustrated in the story, in any particular characters or storylines? What do you think of Iris’s decision to stay away from her family? Can you empathize with her?

5. The theme of mothers and daughters is one that plays throughout the book, and we begin and end the novel with Iris and Melody. How would you describe their relationship? Do you think their relationship has progressed, regressed, or otherwise changed by the conclusion of the novel? In what ways are Iris and Melody similar and in what ways are they different?

6. When Aubrey first brings Iris to his house, he feels a kind of shame about his mother and his way of life that he never experienced before. Consider the different ways in which Aubrey and Iris’s class differences manifest within their relationship. How do those differences affect their relationship as teenagers? As adults? How do other characters in the novel grapple with their class? Consider the upbringings of CathyMarie, Aubrey, Sabe, Melody, and Iris. What do you think the novel is saying about the relationship between race, class, and education?  

7. Some of the big historic events that happen in the background of the narrative include the Tulsa massacre of 1921, the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s, and the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001. How does the author use these events in the book? What do they provide to the structure of the story and time line? What do they contribute to our emotional understanding of the characters? Are the individual characters changed by these events? Do you see this history influencing their outlooks and their ambitions or their legacies? As a child Iris fought with Sabe about the Tulsa story, claiming it wasn’t her history. Is Iris right? Can history truly belong to someone? And who is allowed to tell the story?

8. Discuss the use of musical references in the novel. How does “Darling Nikki” shape our impression of Melody in the first chapter? How does music aid in telling the stories of the other characters and their respective generations: Sabe and Po’Boy? Iris and Aubrey? Slip Rock and CathyMarie?

9. What do we learn about the characters from the way they show their love to each other: From Aubrey’s love of his mother? From Iris’s love of Jam? From Sabe’s love of Po’Boy? From Melody’s love of Malcolm, and vice versa? How does time away from the loved one affect that love? Are there right ways and wrong ways to love, and if so, who exemplifies them within the novel?

10. What do you think the author is saying, ultimately, about generational trauma? Sabe declares: “I carry the goneness. Iris carries the goneness. And watching her walk down those stairs, I know now that my grandbaby [Melody] carries the goneness too.” What do you think she means by this? How does this goneness affect their lives and relationships with others? Is there an opposite to goneness, and if so, is it achievable for any of the characters?

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