Berkshire Eagle Book Club

Our reviews: 'Red at the Bone'

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The Book: "Red at the Bone," by Jacqueline Woodson

Publisher: Riverhead Books; First Edition edition (September 17, 2019)

Synopsis: An unexpected teenage pregnancy pulls together two families from different social classes, and exposes the private hopes, disappointments and longings that can bind or divide us from each other.

"I carry the goneness. Iris carries the goneness. And watching her walk down those stairs, I know now that my grandbaby [Melody] carries the goneness too."

What do we inherit from our ancestors? Is it more than material items? Do we inherit their pain and loss along with their love and wisdom? Can a trauma change us on such a level that it becomes part of our DNA, an unspoken legacy handed down from one generation to another?

What we pass on to our children and our children's children is at the center of Jacqueline Woodson's "Red at the Bone," in which she tells the story of a family, brought together by a teen pregnancy. It's a family steeped in legacy and tradition, in which one generation shoulders the burdens of the previous generations' heartache and trauma.

Consequently, the female members of this family either love too much or too little; and sometimes, love themselves too much to have love left over for others. And thus, they carry the trauma forward with them; never breaking the cycle. Can this cycle be broken? Woodson's answer is sad, yet realistic.

— Jennifer Huberdeau, UpCountry Magazine editor

"Red at the Bone" is an alternating point-of-view novel telling the story of Iris and Aubrey and the family that results from their teenage pregnancy. I will own up to being sort of done with large cast, alternating point-of-view novels. What made this book all the more tiring was the non-linear chapters, the points-of-view that weren't immediately obvious, and the motivations of the characters that were fundamentally mundane and common. Melody is a petulant teenager, unable to relate to her mother. Iris is a spoiled princess, unable to relate to the father of her child — who loves her — until she grows up, has a kid, goes to college and falls in love for the first time herself. Which makes her a jerk, but also just a teenager. Aubrey has a weird fixation with Iris' sexuality, and with the idea of his own daughter's sexuality. Iris' father Po'Boy also has a strange fixation with Iris's sexuality. Often in this book, women's sexuality is seen as a sort of uncomfortable, unnatural thing that men have to contend with, and the male gaze here is always creepy and occasionally slightly incestuous. There is no underlying trauma propelling the story forward here. Family relationships are sometimes complicated. That's not enough of a narrative for me. The author was seemingly aware of how little consequence existed in her book, and she tried for a twist that instead of providing the emotional context she was asking for, resulted in only rage on my part. It was heavy-handed and tactless. Also, no one remembers being born. That's not a thing.

— Meggie Baker, calendar editor

"Red at the Bone" is the story of four generations of a fairly well-to-do family and the merging of their family with one of a lesser class through an unplanned — and unwanted — teen pregnancy.

The families' stories are told through the eyes of five strong women, moving back and forth through time. A grandmother, who had survived the Tulsa massacre in 1921; a mother, Sabe, who raised a rebellious, and ungrateful, daughter, Iris; Iris' daughter, Melody, raised by her father and her mother's family due to her mother's selfishness; and her paternal grandmother, Cathy Marie.

The book chronicles the journey each woman took, the life experiences and the missed opportunities that influenced them and made them who they are. It explores class differences and status, sexual desires and exploration, and handed-down beliefs and traditions.

The book is a quick read, one I managed in one afternoon. I found the characters somewhat interesting, but also easily forgettable, and the ending of the book was predictable. I don't regret the time I spent reading the book, but I don't think I'll be recommending it for anyone to read either.

— Margaret Button, associate features editor

It's hard not to like "Red at the Bone's" dip-of-the-toe into one particular family's various dramas and traumas. It's also hard to fall in love with it.

Jacqueline Woodson invites you to be a fly on the wall, or a fly in the subconscious of various members of a family during the 16th birthday of Melody, the central figure in the story. From that day, Woodson dives into the memories of all involved in the raising of Melody; her mother and father, and grandparents, all of whom have their own takes on things like teenage parenting and the socioeconomic ladder in early 21st-century Brooklyn.

Woodson's prose is really nice at times, with incredibly skilled descriptions of everything from running track to sex and Alzheimer's to childbirth.

While the subconscious storytelling of multiple individuals gives a glimpse into Melody's life, it remains just a glimpse. I finished confused about a handful of untied storylines forced by the jumpy nature of the style.

In the end, we seem to resolve very little. But, for a brief time, "Red at the Bone" provides intriguing snippets to a to-me (straight, white, childless male) unfamiliar world.

— Michael Walsh, sports reporter

Jacqueline Woodson's "Red at the Bone" just scratched the skin for me. All the elements were there for a layered family novel, and Woodson's prose is poetic, and surprisingly both blunt and beautiful at the same time. But often, so much was left unsaid that the characters fell flat on the page. I didn't dislike the book — it was an extremely fast read — but in the end, I wasn't wowed by the book, either. There were moments Woodson's words cut deep — when Sabe realizes her granddaughter no longer calls her mother "mom," but rather Iris, and all the deep-rooted pain that goes along with understanding a person isn't worthy of such a powerful, parental title — and the pace of the language has a natural, spoken word quality to it. But I was left wanting more: more character development, more of Woodson's plainly stated truths of a world I've never been a part of. It felt unfinished and a little rushed, and I would have liked to spend more time with the story and Woodson's words.

Lindsey Hollenbaugh, managing editor of features


Our next book club pick is "American Dirt," by Jeanine Cummins.

Lydia Quixano P rez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable. Even though she knows they'll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia's husband's tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same. Forced to flee, Lydia and 8-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier's reach doesn't extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?


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