Review: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

by DW McKinney


Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Riverhead Books, 2019

208 pages / Penguin Random House

It begins with music—a beautiful entanglement of tradition and modernity that courses through Red at the Bone. Jacqueline Woodson, a 2014 National Book Award Winner for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, carries these notes over 200, tightly written pages, weaving the past and present together in a singular sorrowful song. It’s sung in chorus, telling the story of two families reluctantly united by youth and class. That song trembles across trauma and caresses fleeting love, before releasing itself to the sound of splintering wood in an empty house. 

The novel opens as Melody prepares for her cotillion, pulling on stockings and garters to complement her silk and satin gown—a strange heirloom from her grandmother that was originally meant for her mother’s debut. Watching her estranged mother, Iris, gaze out the window, Melody has a haunting revelation, “—a mother’s love for you morphing into something incomprehensible. A dress ghosted in another generation’s dreams. A history of fire and ash and loss. Legacy.” This revelation follows her as she descends the stairs to her cotillion, signaling the end of Melody’s girlhood in a more acceptable, polite manner than her mother experienced sixteen years prior.

The first chapter reveals the wide gulf that exists between Melody and Iris in a series of halves. A half-realized legacy. A half-fulfilled parentage and lineage. A half understanding of Melody’s birth story. She and her mother must perform an immense amount of emotional work to repair the damage between them, but we quickly see how difficult that will be. They’ve only begun their journey—and the reader has too. 

The novel’s core is a lesson on abundance and lack, which is initially referenced in the epigraph—a conversation between two old Black men:

“Bro, how you doing? You holding on?”

“Man, you know it goes. One day chicken. Next day bone.”

This idea of chicken and bone—the good and the bad, the days of abundance and days of not enough—is explored in the novel’s themes of motherhood, family, and love. Often, love is unrequited or missing. Mothering is never fully experienced or emerges at unexpected times. And the idea of family, who gets to be part of it and when, can change with the arrival of a baby.

Woodson spins the single, reliable narrator. Red at the Boneis told from five alternating perspectives—Melody, her parents Aubrey and Iris, and her maternal grandparents Po’Boy and Sabe. The cotillion is the introduction to their interpersonal dynamics—more brittle bone than meat or sinew—as we circle the event and then slowly drift away from it until each subsequent chapter feels like an intimate conversation between the reader and narrator that flows in and out of time. 

It would be easy for the characters to blur into each other, but Woodson writes them with such incredible distinction that we can precisely discern how each specifically tugs on the tension fraying their collective and individual identities. Woodson subtly plays against stereotypes when it comes to the characters and how they respond to certain situations. For those, like myself, who aren’t familiar with her middle grade and young adult literature, Red at the Boneis a testament to Woodson’s deftness. 

To tell you how the novel ends means to spoil this beautiful song. Most of the details should be closely guarded for those who have yet to read the book. It’s worth discovering the treasures hidden between the pages on your own.

I stumbled upon an audio file of Woodson reading Aubrey’s first chapter. What a pleasure it was to place her cadence against the story and feel time stretch and bend against her precise words. There is power in how Woodson speaks her story into being, and it gives a taste of how the novel should be read. Not quickly, despite the sparse format, but drawn and lingered on. With weight pressed against each word. Hearing her, knowing how it should sound, enhanced its overall emotional resonance with me. I immediately picked up the book again and began re-reading it with her voice resounding in my mind.

Woodson’s writing has been compared to Toni Morrison’s, which is a heavy crown to bear. I can see shadows of Morrison’s influence in the novel—which is common in modern Black literature as we are her literary children and grandchildren. But Woodson stands firmly in her own mighty prestige. Yet, it is also just to say, like the work of many skilled novelists, Red at the Bone resonates with the soul. It’s a story that rightfully satisfies our (literary) hungering.


DW McKinney is a writer based in Las Vegas. Her work is featured in Bitch MediaLinden Avenue Literary Journal, Stoneboat Literary JournalTAYO Literary Magazine, and others. Her essays have appeared in HelloGiggles and Elite Daily, and she currently serves as creative nonfiction editor at The Tishman Review. She holds an MA in Anthropology from Texas State University and a bachelor in Biology from Dominican University of California. She has essays forthcoming in Narratively and Road Grays. Learn more about her at www.dwmckinney.com or follow her on Twitter @thedwmckinney.