Book Review: Red at the Bone

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Jacqueline Woodson's latest novel "Red at the Bone" begins with an orchestra playing music, the murmur of a room full of relatives, a brownstone staircase on which a teenage girl in a dress once made for her mother descends. "Finally sixteen," the character muses, "and the moment like a hand holding me out to the world."

It's the start of a book that floats among the perspectives of several main characters, all members of two very different black families in New York whose lives are united after an unexpected teenage pregnancy _ resulting in Melody, the young woman we meet in the opening pages. Time moves backward and forward in the novel, showing us where the characters have been, what made them who they are, where they are going.

"I'm starting the reader smack dab in the center of something, not a once upon a time," said Woodson, in a telephone interview from her Brooklyn home this month. "You're coming into something that is already in progress." Planning the book, she said, made her realize anew that "life is not a linear narrative ... In order to talk about something that was in progress, I had to go back and forward and be in the present and the past, because if I just tried to tell a story in one place in time, it wouldn't be true.

"As an author, I have all of those gazes so I can move around in time, and hope that the reader trusts that I'm going to deliver them to a specific place."

Woodson is the author of more than two dozen books. Much of Woodson's work, including the National Book Award-winning "Brown Girl Dreaming," has been for young readers; "Red at the Bone" is one of her few books for adults, following "Another Brooklyn" in 2016.

A multitasker, Woodson says she generally works on two or three books simultaneously, and lets the story tell her who the audience will be. "If I'm writing something that feels short and poetic and immediate, it's probably going to be a picture book," she said. "If I'm writing in the voice of a young person, and it's not an adult looking back but that immediate voice of a young person, I know it's going to be targeted on young people."

But sometimes it takes a couple of drafts to figure out exactly who the story is for. "Sometimes I start in the voice of an 11-year-old boy, and I realize, nah, this kid is actually 25. It's something different. Then I begin reshaping the story."

The initial spark for "Red at the Bone" came from Woodson's desire to write something about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a vivid memory for Melody's grandmother (who was a child at the time). "There is so little written about it that young people don't study it, people don't know about it," Woodson said. In two days of violence, a thriving black neighborhood was looted and burned by white rioters. As many as 300 people may have been killed, and thousands of black Tulsans were imprisoned or interned.

Woodson wanted to convey "the enormity of the damage, the enormity of the destruction of black wealth." The massacre casts a shadow in the family; from the grandmother who remembers it to her daughter and granddaughter who don't, but who understand why the elder generation so carefully guarded what was theirs.

Getting to know the characters is a huge part of Woodson's process; one she doesn't like to talk about too much because "for me it's important not to question the journey, just to let the journey happen." In her process, "characters sneak up on you; you wonder where they came from and why you became the vehicle for their stories."

She described one moment that came to her early, involving Melody's father, Aubrey. Unlike Melody and her mother Iris' well-off family, Aubrey grew up poor, and in the book's early birthday party scene he stands in the elegant brownstone where his daughter lives. "He doesn't know what to do with his hands," said Woodson, describing the moment. "He's in a different place, he's a young dad, in a different economic class, in this grand house with these grand people who have this long history of knowing where they came from, and him not having that. As it became more and more clear who he was, that moment made more and more sense to me. That he would be standing there, awkwardly."

"As a writer, I'm not going to say, 'He's standing there awkwardly.' That's breaking the rule of writing _ show, don't tell. So I want to show how this is for him, how in the awkwardness there is also a longing and a sadness and a confusion."

These days, Woodson's at work on a middle-grade book, a picture book, a newspaper article and a television adaptation of her book "Behind You"; she's fairly new to screenwriting, but likes it. "It's interesting for me in that I kind of have to shut off my narrative voice," she said. "But I'm seeing how it kind of seeps into my fiction and dries it out a little bit, and I don't want that to happen."

But the world of "Red at the Bone" is clearly still close to her heart. Asked about the title (a phrase that appears in the book, to indicate a feeling of rawness and immediacy), Woodson said that it felt like the truth for the characters. "All of them, and each of us, is still in the making, still cooking, still fragile," she said. "I remember the title coming to me, even before I finished the book. I knew that this was part of the journey, to show the fragility of life itself, the fragility of emotion and desire and family and love _ to me it all feels kind of red at the bone."

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