Jacqueline Woodson’s third adult novel, “Red at the Bone,” is a rare bird indeed — a family epic in 196 pages. It tells the story of several generations of a black American family, beginning with the 1921 Race Massacre in Tulsa and ending a year or two after the Sept. 11 attacks. A miracle of compressions, it demands and rewards close attention.
The book starts in familiar Woodson territory — with a teenager in Brooklyn, getting dressed for a party to celebrate her 16th birthday: a kind of one-girl cotillion with a live orchestra playing an instrumental rendition of Prince’s famously raunchy “Darling Nikki.” Melody is putting on the tea-length dress that was made for her mother, Iris, to wear to this same occasion years ago — but Iris never wore the dress; she was pregnant with Melody at 15.
While getting ready, Melody remembers her visit to the tailor with her grandmother, Sabe, who kept the dress in a closet all this time. As Sabe watches the tailor pin the fabric for alterations, Melody sees her dab at her eyes. “Maybe this was the moment when I knew I was part of a line of almost-erased stories. … I am not Melody who is sixteen, I am not my parents’ once-illegitimate daughter — I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.”
The almost-erased stories re-emerge here, in brief chapters that continually shift the viewpoint. Because Iris went off to college at Oberlin three years after giving birth, Melody was brought up by her grandparents, Sabe and Po’Boy Simmons, as well as her father, Aubrey. Aubrey himself was raised by a single mother, CathyMarie, in conditions far less cushy than those of the Simmonses in their brownstone. Each of these six characters fills in part of the picture.
Sabe, a proud woman driven by the stories of her family’s flight from Tulsa, was so scathed by the judgment heaped on her pregnant daughter that she packed up and moved the family across town to Park Slope. “You remember your parents living, wrap the ancient photos of Lucille’s Hair Heaven and Joe’s Supper Club pulled from the flames, and you rise. You rise. You rise.”
Iris struggles to rise at Oberlin, her breasts still leaking as she tries to fit in. She falls in love with a girl named Jamison, so desperately that she feels “red at the bone — like there was something inside of her undone and bleeding.” Yet she is afraid to tell Jamison the truth about her life.
As Woodson’s women struggle and seethe, the male characters in the book, Po’Boy and Aubrey, are gentle and nurturing. Aubrey weeps as he watches his daughter descend the stairs in her lovely dress, and thinks “he would give his own life to see Melody stay this young, to live her teenage life” — to have the chance he did not.
Full of tragedy and triumph, loss and discovery, poetry and music, Woodson’s slim volume contains multitudes.
Red at the Bone By: Jacqueline Woodson. Publisher: Riverhead Books, 196 pages, $26.
Marion Winik is the author of “The Big Book of the Dead” and the host of the “Weekly Reader” podcast. She serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and lives in Baltimore.