55 pages 1 hour read

Jacqueline Woodson

Red at the Bone

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Jacqueline Woodson’s 2019 Red at the Bone is a work of fiction that centers on the coming together of two dissimilar families because of a teen pregnancy. Highly acclaimed and award-winning author Woodson offers a counternarrative to the familiar tale of teenage pregnancy while considering how identity intersects with class, race, sexuality, gender, and history. This study guide was created with the aid of the Riverhead Books 2019 hardback edition.

Plot Summary

The novel opens 80 years to the day of the Tulsa Massacre, a violent two-day incident, where White people attack Black people, inside the Brooklyn Brownstone home of Melody’s grandparents. It is Melody’s 16th birthday party, and she is participating in her ceremony—a family tradition developed from years of cotillions. The house is filled with friends and family, and the narrative jumps between Melody, her parents Iris and Aubrey, and her grandparents Sabe and Po’Boy as they offer poetic vignettes from their lives, each contributing to the realization of this moment.

Melody is the product of teenage pregnancy, her inception binding Iris and Aubrey together despite their stark difference in class. Sabe, who is born to a family with a direct connection to the Tulsa Massacre, carries the dark heirlooms of trauma into her habits and relationship to her daughter. Her and Po’Boy worked extremely hard and sacrificed so much that they initially perceive Iris’s pregnancy as the undoing of their accomplishments. Eventually, they both learn they could never control their daughter.

Iris struggles to maintain a connection to her child. While Aubrey enjoys his role as a father, Iris finds the pressure unrelenting. After healing from childbirth, Iris moves to Ohio for college, leaving Aubrey and Melody behind and finding freedom in being away from home. Her decision to leave permanently scars both Aubrey and Melody. Aubrey continues to love Iris over the years, but she grows distant and finds love in Ohio. Melody suffers severe psychological trauma from the absence of her mother, furthered by the sudden death of her father months after her 16th birthday, and struggles with achieving a healthy relationship to Iris. In the end, only Iris and Melody remain, and they must face the future of their family together.

Woodson is uncompromising in her portrait of generational trauma, class, and sexuality, offering no solution or absolution for her morally ambiguous characters. Instead, she puts forth characters whose very existences are proclamations, their lives underscoring, responding, and healing the history that precedes them. Ultimately, Red at the Bone, celebrates love, legacy, and the multitudes of Black identity.