Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson
Reviewed by NC Weil
Jacqueline Woodson, well-established as a children’s book author with numerous awards to her credit, has taken her next step, into adult fiction. Her new novel, Red at the Bone, aptly demonstrates that she has plenty to say to this larger audience. Into the tale of a pair of African-American Brooklyn teenagers who fall in love and get pregnant, she expertly weaves the backstory of their lives and families.
Aubrey has grown up in many places with his single mother, while Iris has always lived in the Bushwick house occupied by her mother and grandparents. So it makes contradictory-human sense that Iris, after giving birth to Melody as a fifteen-year-old, finishes her education (with some prodding from Aubrey’s mother) and goes off to Ohio to college – being tied down to a place and family doesn’t work for her. Aubrey, meanwhile, is happy to settle in with Iris’s kin, and raise their baby.
In the background is the issue of generational wealth – Aubrey has none; Iris’s grandmother has what she has put together and hoarded following the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, in which wealthy black Greenville was burned to the ground, and hundreds of its residents murdered, by jealous whites from neighboring Tulsa. The harsh lesson survivors drew was that financial security beholden to the white establishment could be erased in a moment – gold and property were their surest assets, the ones safest from racist attack. The fact that until 20 years ago the Tulsa Massacre was a largely unknown chapter of American history, is testament to the deliberate silence of a record written by the perpetrators.
Woodson’s writing style is replete with open spaces. I was reminded of Robert Cole’s style of sculpture, which he called Essentialism – from an iconic sculpture, The Thinker, he removed an arm here, belly there, until what remained, pared-down, was all the eye required to evoke the complete image. Woodson does the same thing in words, sprinkling memories and deeds, leaving it to the reader’s mind to put the picture together.
The story ranges from the Tulsa Massacre to the September 11 attacks, yet because the focus is on characters, we don’t feel rushed, and the pages are not crammed with more than we can absorb. Each new detail adds another brushstroke to our impression of these people, until by the book’s end we know them well. Woodson has mastered her medium, and it’s a joy to read. Brava!