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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1241


Although the first chapter is told from Melody’s point of view, Iris is the protagonist of Red at the Bone, and from her complexities emerge the novel’s central themes. Iris is Melody’s mother and Sabe’s daughter, and she spent her entire childhood in Brooklyn. She is described as beautiful and intelligent, with vibrant amber eyes. As a child, she was often at odds with her mother, due to Sabe’s firm Christian faith, dominant personality, and her constant focus on her family’s traumatic history. When Iris was fifteen, she began dating Aubrey and became pregnant shortly thereafter. In contrast to Aubrey, Iris grew up privileged. Whereas Aubrey loses his virginity to Iris, Iris reveals later on that she lost her virginity when she was thirteen to a boy she thought she was in love with. She is initially optimistic about the pregnancy, but experiences regret as soon as Melody is born.

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Because of her desire to escape the pressures of familial life, Iris applies to college. She chooses to attend Oberlin, because, of all the schools she applied to, it is the farthest away from Brooklyn. During college, she begins to feel like she has outgrown Aubrey and Melody, and she has a six-month relationship with a girl named Jamison. Iris continues to distance herself from Aubrey and Melody after graduating, moving into a separate apartment in Manhattan.

Furthermore, as a self-described lapsed Catholic, Iris has a considerably defiant, careless nature and feels perpetually unfulfilled with her life circumstances. As a result, she comes across as aloof, or even selfish, but these traits perhaps reflect symptoms of depression, which stem from her mother’s abuse, her disillusionment with reality, and perhaps inherited trauma from her ancestors. Her grief over Aubrey’s death and her regret over her absence as a mother to Melody illustrates that, although she makes hurtful decisions that impact them, Iris cares deeply about her family.


Aubrey Daniels, Melody’s father, grew up in a small apartment in Brooklyn and was raised by a single mother, CathyMarie. He never met his father and later learns from his mother that he died of a drug overdose. Whereas his mother has lighter skin, Aubrey takes after his father’s comparatively darker appearance. He explains that his mother grew up in the system; as a result of her reliance on the government for financial support, she became motivated to give Aubrey a better life.

In contrast to Iris, Aubrey is more of a romantic, and he describes being deeply in love with Iris. Perhaps due to his sensitive nature, he displays more maternal instincts than Iris does, and he places significant value on family. Consequently, he does not mind giving up his ambitions to take care of Melody, which confuses Iris, who does not want to settle down. Having a child at sixteen makes Aubrey seem older than his years, especially considering that he also began his working life at the same age.

Aubrey clearly enjoys being a father to Melody, and their close bond mirrors his strong relationship with his mother. He struggles with Iris’s increasing physical and emotional distance, and he becomes more lost in the wake of his mother’s death. In many ways, Aubrey’s unwavering loyalty, compassionate personality, and steadfast commitment to raising Melody make him an amalgamating force in the family. For this reason, his death on 9/11 has a profound impact on the other characters.


As the daughter of Iris and Aubrey, Melody stands at the heart of Red to the Bone. Her entry into the world is the catalyst of the story and binds together the various narratives. As the novel unfolds, Woodson uses Melody’s development—from her birth to her departure for college—to draw forth insights from the life experiences and perspectives of other characters. Born to Iris when she was sixteen, Melody is named after Sabe’s mother and is primarily raised by Aubrey and Sabe and has strong relationships with both of them. After Iris leaves for college, Melody spends very little time with her mother. By age seven, she begins referring to her as Iris. She is described as a curious, happy child, with insightful observations of her surroundings.

Fiercely independent and introspective, Melody’s quest for identity somewhat mirrors that of her mother. However, while Iris struggles with a constant desire to escape her reality, Melody represents youthful optimism and innocence, seen in her love for artists like Prince, her playful personality, and her warm friendship with Malcolm. As she gets older, she feels a greater resentment towards her mother. Despite this tension, Woodson illuminates their similarities. At the novel’s end, Iris sees herself in her daughter for the first time.


Sabe Ella Franklin is Iris’s mother and Melody’s grandmother. She is a devout Catholic with a willful personality, and is portrayed as intensely prideful and averse to shame. After her upbringing in Chicago, she attended Spelman College. During her senior year, she met Po’Boy while he was working at a law firm, and they married in 1967. Soon after, they have a son, Benjamin, who dies as a baby. They move to Brooklyn a year later, where Sabe works as a second-grade teacher at a Catholic school. Sabe and Po’Boy try to conceive in the years following, and Sabe finally becomes pregnant with Iris and gives birth at age forty.

As a child, Sabe grew up hearing stories of her traumatic family history, in which the fires of the Tulsa race riot of 1921 destroyed the family beauty shop and almost resulted in her mother’s death at two years old. Given this history, she was raised with the attitude to “hold on to your money and hold on to your dreams,” and thus she hid her family’s gold under the stairs. Henceforth, Sabe had high aspirations for Iris. Upon learning of Iris’s pregnancy, Sabe believes that those aspirations have been destroyed. Their complicated relationship influences the other characters—especially Melody, who sees Sabe as her own mother. The last chapter of the novel begins as the late Sabe is lowered into her grave, next to Po’Boy and Aubrey.


Sabe’s husband, Sammy “Po’Boy” Simmons, attended Morehouse College, where he was a runner and an accounting major. After graduation, he began working at a law firm, and he courted Sabe during this time. Po’Boy seems to have a gentler nature than Sabe and shows deep affection for his family; he mentions that he and Iris have a deeper connection with one another than Sabe and Iris have with each other. In the timeline of the first chapter, Po’Boy is dying of cancer. As he watches Melody during her birthday ceremony, he reflects on the fragility of life and the rapid passing of time.


CathyMarie, Aubrey’s mother, began dying of cancer when Iris was late in her pregnancy. She has a warm demeanor, a brilliant mind, and an intensely strong relationship with Aubrey, who, as her only child, was the center of her life. She also grows a special bond with Iris. Having grown up in “the system,” CathyMarie insists that her grandchild grow correctly, which is why she helps Iris finish her high school education. In contrast to Sabe, she is not religious; she places her belief instead in the power of words.

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