Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1138
Jacqueline Woodson’s 2019 novel Red at the Bone begins with a conversation between sixteen-year-old Melody and her mother, Iris, as Melody gets ready for her birthday ceremony. While she listens to Prince, her mother’s white dress, which Melody will wear for the ceremony, lays on the bed. Iris explains to her that, because she became pregnant with Melody at fifteen, she never had her ceremony, and the dress has been unworn since. Melody reflects on a time when she was a young child and idolized her mother. However, because Iris was absent for much of her childhood, she began to call her mother by her first name. When Melody says that she knows Iris did not want her, Iris responds that she did but had to hide her pregnancy from her deeply religious parents.
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The novel then follows a nonlinear structure, and each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character within the family, mostly in the form of flashbacks that provide context to each of their lives. Feeling bewildered by the passing of time, Melody’s father, Aubrey, paints a picture of his childhood while watching her descend the stairs during her birthday ceremony. In contrast to Iris, Aubrey grew up in a small apartment in Brooklyn with his mother, CathyMarie, who has since passed away. Aubrey never met his father, and CathyMarie was always reluctant to talk about him. CathyMarie later reveals that she got pregnant while she was dating Aubrey’s father during college, but his father soon after succumbed to heroin addiction and died of an overdose.
Between Aubrey and Iris’s narratives, it becomes clear that the two have grown apart since Melody’s birth. Aubrey explains in his narrative that they used to be in love, but Iris became increasingly distant—both literally and emotionally—since Melody was a young child. Despite Melody’s being only a toddler, Iris left Brooklyn to attend Oberlin College. Consequently, Melody barely saw her mother when she was young, and was much closer to her father. Recalling her college years, Iris reflects that she did not want to spend her future with Aubrey. She conveys her confusion at his keenness to settle down at such a young age. While at Oberlin, she meets a girl from one of her classes named Jamison—who goes by “Jam.” Jam sees a picture of Melody and asks Iris if she is her sister, and Iris lies that she is.
When Iris unexpectedly became pregnant at age fifteen, she was attending Catholic school. Despite her attempts to hide her growing belly from her parents, her mother Sabe found a box of unopened pads in her bathroom. She then beat her daughter out of shame and anger, exclaiming that this was not supposed to be God’s plan for them. However, Iris expressed her desire to keep the baby. Po’Boy, Iris’s father and Melody’s grandfather, also remembers the pain of learning about Iris’s pregnancy, and he originally thought that her growing belly was just another growth spurt.
In a flashback to 1984, Aubrey and Iris have sex in Iris’s bedroom. Aubrey, who is a virgin, tells Iris that he loves her, but she doesn’t respond and instead advances on him. Despite being amazed by the feeling, he expresses a sense of loss afterwards. He and Iris then go to Aubrey’s apartment so he can introduce her to his mother. In his narration he expresses that his mother is the most important person in his life, mentioning that she grew up in “the system” and now lives alone in a dark apartment, spending most of her time in front of the television. When he introduces Iris to his mother, Aubrey feels insecure upon realizing how poor he and his mother seem compared to Iris’s family. Whereas her family is privileged, he explains that he and his mother have always been in “survival mode.”
The novel then jumps to the perspective of Sbae, Iris’s mother, who details her family’s backstory. Sabe’s mother, also named Melody, almost died at age two during the Tulsa race riot of 1921, when the white residents of the city set fire to her family’s beauty shop. Because of this, Sabe hides her family’s gold under the stairs. She describes her regret in not teaching her daughter to be “pure”—because of her pregnancy—but fondly conveys her love for Melody after she is born. Likewise, Po’Boy, in his narrative, reminisces on the early days of his relationship with Sabe. The two of them met the year after Po’Boy graduated from college, when Sabe still had a year left. He instantly fell in love with her, and they married in June 1967. A year after their first-born son, Benjamin, died as a baby, they moved to Brooklyn from Chicago. After years of trying to have another baby, Sabe finally became pregnant with Iris.
Iris recalls the judgmental attitudes of the other girls at Catholic school after she became pregnant, as well as her resulting expulsion. To her surprise, Aubrey’s mother—a smart woman who clearly values education—offers to teach her, sternly adamant that her granddaughter not be raised by a high school dropout. Iris portrays her fondness for CathyMarie, who has since died.
Later, it is revealed that Iris had an affair with Jamison during college. She describes falling in love with her but insisting on keeping their relationship a secret. When they are having sex, milk comes out of Iris’s breasts, and she reluctantly tells Jam that Melody is actually her daughter, not her sister, and this fact essentially ends their relationship. Devastated, Iris remembers seeing Jam with another girl after they stop seeing each other. This triggers a memory that Iris has of feeling the same way after she lost her virginity at thirteen. Believing she was in love with this boy, she later saw him with his arm around another girl; from that point, she became more emotionally detached, desiring to wall herself away from love. Accordingly, after Iris graduated from Oberlin, the emotional distance between Iris and Aubrey grew. While Iris was living in an apartment in the Upper West Side, Melody would stay with her on Saturday nights, but their relationship was very strained.
The last chapter of the novel begins with Sabe’s funeral. As she is lowered into the ground next to Aubrey and Po’Boy, it is revealed that Aubrey died on 9/11. Iris internally expresses deep regret for what happened between her and Aubrey, and she tells him she is sorry. Iris then drops Melody off at Oberlin for her freshman year of college. As she looks upon Melody in her dorm room, Iris sees herself in her daughter for the first time.