Red at the Bone

Aug 27, 2020

Jacqueline Woodson dedicates her 2019 novel Red at the Bone to “the ancestors, a long line of you bending and twisting.” I’ve been thinking a lot more about my ancestors lately, leaning into the strength of those who came before me who endured wars, economic disasters, or other, even deadlier, global pandemics. I’ve also been watching my parents move into advanced age with all its associate heartache and indignities. So despite declaring zero interest in family history in my 20s, middle-age has me curious and seeking what seems to be a fleeting connection to the past. 

In a recent conversation with my mom, I discovered that she had several handwritten notes from my grandmother that detailed relatives’ birth, marriage, and death dates along with locations of grave stones. A quick search on the library edition of Ancestry, and I was able to see a photograph of my great-great grandmother’s grave in Akins Cemetery in Sequoyah County Oklahoma. Catherine (Kate) Faulkner Taylor died in Indian Territory in 1901 at the age of 31. She had a daughter she named Cherokee who died at the age of 2. 

What is any of this information to me? In my mid-20s I might have answered “nothing.” But, as I see us playing out the unresolved narrative of this country’s generational trauma, I’m not so sure.

Woodson’s Red at the Bone is a multi-generational story that asks many of these same questions. The novel begins in the middle of things with a daring first line: “But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing.” The opening scene is a coming-of-age party for Melody, who is wearing the dress that was originally intended for her mother Iris to wear 16 years earlier. Melody, the result of an unintended teenage pregnancy, brings two disparate families together and sets in motion a story about choices, family, trauma, and resilience. 

One of the centering events within the novel is the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. While the Race Massacre seems peripheral to the plot, it is in fact foundational to the characters’ motivations and choices—whether they are conscious of this or not.  A non-linear narrative told from multiple perspectives suggests the interconnectedness of multiple generations. Trauma and survival are equal parts of the legacy for these characters. I reread Red at the Bone in anticipation of Woodson’s virtual visit as part of the library’s One Book One Tulsa program and found it even richer the second time around. 

The discussion of how our histories shape our present and our futures is a critical one. I’m looking forward to this virtual author event and hope that many of you will join! If we wish to enter into more authentic and compassionate conversations with each other, books like Woodson’s will open the door.