This month, two Central library book groups met virtually to discuss Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, our JMRL Same Page author of 2021. Books on Tap met March 4, and Brown Baggers met March 11. This post examines some of the similarities and differences of those conversations, as well as information and revelations from the author. JMRL was fortunate enough to host Jacqueline Woodson for a Same Page discussion event on March 16.
Red at the Bone immerses readers into the minds and bodies of a large cast of characters that span three generations. Woodson brings memory, history, and generational trauma and inheritance to life through her rich, poetic language. Readers can expect a nonlinear, layered narrative told through a collage of senses, presented in a taut, spare work. Plot-wise, Woodson writes with honesty, heartbreak, and immediacy about her characters (teenage Melody, her mom Iris and dad Aubrey, her grandparents Sabe, Po Boy, and CathyMarie) as they face sex, pregnancy, parenthood, education, poverty, wealth, and racial trauma and healing. Both our book groups noted that, though the work is fiction, they learned a lot from the book, especially about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Both groups were struck by the similarities between the Tulsa Massacre, which destroyed 35 square blocks of businesses known at the time as “Black Wall Street” and the razing of Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood.
Books on Tap spent time discussing the title, identifying moments in the book when it was mentioned explicitly or alluded to. To be “red at the bone” may mean the person or situation is not quite complete — still in progress — like the bits of chicken close to the bone, that don’t quite get cooked. The words “red” and “bone” in close proximity made others think of emotional rawness and vulnerability, a person’s core truth and essence. One reader pointed out that the book deals with race and class, and how people are different, but also similar; when we get beneath our own skin, we’re all “red at the bone.”
Brown Baggers focused on characters, especially Iris. Many identified her as the “main character” as she was the natural link between the generations (Sabe’s daughter, Melody’s mother). Some felt they’d had enough of Iris, but others wanted more of her, as she was one of the more complex characters of the story. Readers found the issue of Iris’ maternal nature (or lack thereof) worthy of discussion. Like other threads, Iris going to college was a gray matter — was she abandoning her daughter, or advancing herself? Woodson says, wholeheartedly, that Iris was not abandoning her daughter; she has the resources to make other decisions.
In her discussion of Iris, Jacqueline said this: “You may not like her but you will never forget her. I couldn’t come to any of my characters with judgement, including Iris.” In fact, there is some Iris in all of us, namely, the hunger we see in her. We all have that hunger, and we either bottle it up, which may come back to haunt us as we inadvertently pass it on to our children, or we go out and, essentially, satiate that hunger. Woodson continued by saying: it’s time to look at our own dreams, what societal norms are at play, and how we’re responding. In reflecting, it seems that “hunger” may be an underlying feeling woven throughout the work (connect back to the title discussions, for example, which came largely from a discussion of food and appetite). Two chapters before the close of the book, we read Melody’s account of the day she was born: “And I remember when they finally placed me at her breast, how I latched on so tight and hard, there was fear in her eyes. How absolutely hungry I was once. For her. For her. For her.” (p.186).
Moving out from Iris, readers considered Iris’ parents, Melody’s grandparents. Books on Tap questioned if it was right of Iris’ parents to support her, and even fight for her ability to be so separate from her daughter? We realized Iris’ parents didn’t push her to be maternal, they gave her an “out” — whether that be good, bad, or negligible. The Brown Baggers considered how Iris created expectations for Melody in her absence. As Melody was raised by her father and grandparents, we wondered if the expectation to be different — to not get pregnant — would result in Melody feeling pressure to not repeat history, or in resentment toward Iris. Once again, Woodson was having the same discussion. When an audience question came in asking if Melody was a “surrogate” for Iris (i.e. a do-over, as the Brown Baggers questioned/theorized), Woodson said no, Melody was her own person, not a stand-in for Iris, or anyone else. That being said, Melody is participating in the narrative, which is heavily saturated with ideas of legacy and inheritance, interconnectedness of family members, and tradition. Melody’s story — both her uniqueness and the way in which she carries the stories of others — continues the family line. Jacqueline also noted that in this novel, she was interested in shifting the idea of what family actually “is.” Jacqueline questioned: what is a broken home? and then noted, I’ve never seen a broken home; Woodson is challenging the assumption that single parent households and non-nuclear family structures are “broken.”
Clearly, Red at the Bone offered plenty of fodder for discussion, from its energy, to its structure and format, to the characters, and the sweeping, consequential time period covered.
Books on Tap will meet again virtually on Thursday, April 1 at 7 pm to discuss Elevation by Stephen King. The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, April 15 at noon to discuss Go Down the Mountain by Meredith Battle. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.
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