It starts in the middle: “But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing.”
Jacqueline Woodson’s luminous new novel, “Red at the Bone” (Riverhead/Penguin Random House, $26), plunges us into a celebration for 16-year-old Melody, who’s being presented to family and well-wishers just like her grandmother was at 16. Melody’s mother, Iris, never had a ceremony. When it was her time, she was already pregnant.
Woodson shifts perspectives and decades to share the depth of this African American family’s story, from Melody’s fraught relationship with Iris to Iris’ teenage relationship with Melody’s father and how it changes as they both grow older.
“I first thought I was going to write this linear narrative and weave all the characters into each chapter and create a family saga as I was writing,” Woodson explained by phone. She’ll be in Austin on Oct. 1. “But that’s not how family works, that’s not how history works, that’s not how story works. And that’s not how life works.”
Woodson — the much-lauded author of more than two dozen books for children and adults and a National Book Award winner for her memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming” — is at the height of her powers in “Bone.” She eloquently explores race, wealth, history and sexual identity in a slim volume that wastes not a word as it compels the reader to see the world through each of her characters’ eyes.
Before her ceremony, Melody lashes out at her mother for choosing college at 19. Iris went off to Oberlin, leaving Melody’s grandmother to care for her along with her father, Aubrey. Iris, meanwhile, remembers what it felt like when she found out she was pregnant: “I was fifteen,” she whispers to herself. “Fifteen. I wasn’t even anybody yet.”
“You know how much we change as adults. In that moment of being 15, all she knows is ‘I want to keep my baby,’ and then she’s 16 and 17 and hungry for learning and experiencing the world and getting away,” Woodson says. “There are so many ways of being a mother, and I never want to paint the same narrative again. I always want to explore that diversity of living.”
Aubrey confounds Iris with his contentment: “Iris didn’t understand his happiness. How this was so absolutely enough for him.” Yet even the mere news of Melody’s impending arrival gives him a sense of purpose. When he sees Slip Rock, one of the neighborhood dealers, drift by in the latest car, with the latest clothes, he avoids temptation. “‘You good?’ Slip called out to him. ‘Cuz you know I got you if you ain’t.’”
“When he’s standing there, it’s a crossroads for Aubrey,” Woodson says. “It’s this moment that’s happened in literature throughout history, where a character makes one decision or the other. Here is this kid who’s been told by his girlfriend that she’s pregnant – ‘You put a baby inside me.’ … He could go sell crack too. This is a crossroads that so many young men of color were at in the ’90s. … (Aubrey) is at once heartbreaking and beautiful. In him there is such a deep moral code, and such a deep completeness.”
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The ability of story to connect is a powerful theme of this novel, as are the tendrils of experience that stretch through generations. Melody’s grandmother Sabe insists on telling each of her descendants about the fires and murders that happened in Tulsa when her own mother was just 2. The story is gripping, yet not always received with open arms.
“I think every older person knows the experience of telling something from the past and the younger person turning away from it, saying, ‘This has nothing to do with me,’ or young people’s eyes glazing over,” Woodson says. “Now that I’m 56 and I have children, I understand the importance of us remembering history. … I believe that the 300-plus people who died in the Tulsa race massacre have something to do with me, enslavement has something to do with me; every part of the person I am now is because of the people who came before me. It’s so important that history is in the book because it grounds us in an understanding of who we are.”
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