Is there a more fraught, vilified figure in American letters — in worldwide letters, perhaps — than the mother who abandons a child? To be a mother who goes away, physically or emotionally, is widely considered to be a mother who turns monstrous, a towering figure who inflicts enduring, ne plus ultra pain upon the offspring she leaves behind. But what if that departure isn’t necessarily monstrous; what if the wound of maternal abandonment could be not only alleviated, but also, perhaps, healed by other kinds of love? This possibility underlies Jacqueline Woodson’s much anticipated, profoundly moving novel “Red at the Bone.”
Woodson has written more than two dozen books, many of them award-winning; in 2014, she won the National Book Award for young people’s literature for her memoir, “Brown Girl Dreaming.” She is also a four-time National Book Award finalist and a two-time N.A.A.C.P. Image Award winner, a beloved writer with millions of copies of her books in print. “Red at the Bone” is her second novel for adults, with urgent, vital insights into questions of class, gender, race, history, queerness and sex in America.
“Red at the Bone” centers on two black families who come together when a girl and a boy in high school, Iris and Aubrey, become pregnant. Iris is from a life and family in which, “even as a child, she’d never doubted that she’d one day go to college”: Having a baby at 16 was never part of the plan.
Still, “I wanted you. I wanted you growing in my body, I wanted you in my arms, I wanted you over my shoulder,” Iris tells her daughter, Melody, years later. Resolutely pushing through her family’s resistance, Iris proceeds to have the baby; her disapproving parents soften as soon as they see the infant’s “half-open eyes slide over” to them. Aubrey falls powerfully in love with his daughter, and with being a parent, and he moves into Iris’s family’s house in Brooklyn. He starts a job. All, it seems, could be well.
But it turns out that Iris craves more than a family life confined to her parents’ house, and part of the miracle of “Red at the Bone” is its evident, steady respect for Iris’s wants, the narrative primacy given to hungers that might not, to many, seem acceptable. Iris has birthed her child, but realizes she still wants to go to college; she wants more than Aubrey, doesn’t love him enough “to walk through the rest of her life with him.” She sees past college, too, imagining “some fancy job somewhere where she dressed cute and drank good wine at a restaurant after work.”
Again and again, in rich detail, Woodson gives life to Iris’s growing desires: Iris immerses herself in her high school studies, reading Shakespeare and the Brontës while Aubrey sleeps, infant Melody on his chest. “The desire was like nothing she’d ever known,” Woodson explains. Later, she says Iris’s “brain was on fire, hungry as hell.” Iris was but a child herself, after all, just 15 when she conceived Melody, and children grow. People change: “Even this early on she knew she could never be happy at home again. She had outgrown Brooklyn and Aubrey and even Melody. Was that cruel? To be the child’s mother but even at 19 have this gut sense she’d done all she could for her?”
Aubrey’s contentment, though, runs deep: “If he had taken the SATs, Iris knew he probably would have scored high enough to get into any school he’d chosen. But he was done. He was good. Some mornings he whistled softly. Iris didn’t understand his happiness. How this was so absolutely enough for him.” He’s satisfied, no, delighted with his job in the mailroom of a law firm, his child, the love and care he’s able to give his new family. What Aubrey wants most is what he’s likely to lose: the family he already has.
This is a central question of “Red at the Bone”: What is to be done when two people, tied together by a baby they’ve made, want disparate lives? When the velocity and direction of two people’s longings so wildly diverge? If the situation were reversed, the genders flipped — if Iris were the parent fulfilled by a domestic life, a low-paying but stable job, and Aubrey ached for more, elsewhere — this would be an old story, as familiar and established as the patriarchy itself. The devoted mother, the father itching to run. But to depict a mother eager to leave her baby is a far less told story, and it’s astonishing, it’s a feat, to see how lovingly, even joyfully, Woodson sees Iris’s desires through.
No one in Iris’s family, or Aubrey’s — Iris included — is trying to hurt anyone. Sturdy, lasting love, consideration and everyday kindness: These are as integral to a good life as they are challenging to portray in fiction. Villains can be so much easier to bring to fictional life, and, often, the more evil, the more compelling: Consider, for instance, every blockbuster superhero movie. The characters in “Red at the Bone” are doing what they can, in a world and nation that’s often very hard. Occasionally mentioned, and never forgotten, is the fact that Iris’s family moved to Brooklyn from the South in 1921 after white people in Tulsa burned down black people’s schools, restaurants and beauty shops. It’s not just that the past informs the present, nor is it just that the past isn’t past; it’s also the case that the past has to be remembered, has to be kept alive.
“I must have heard it a hundred times by the time I was school age,” notes Iris’s mother, Sabe, reflecting on her family’s stories about the 1921 fires. “I knew. And I made sure Iris knew. And I’m going to make sure Melody knows too, because if a body’s to be remembered, someone has to tell its story.” Accordingly, as though to underscore how present this history is, the novel is narrated in short sections that jump frequently around in time, narrated in turns by Iris, Sabe, Melody, Aubrey, Iris’s father, Po’Boy, Aubrey’s mother, CathyMarie, and back around again.
“The old folks used to say that from the ashes comes the new bird,” Sabe says. With its abiding interest in the miracle of everyday love, “Red at the Bone” is a proclamation. There’s a striking moment when Aubrey, who grew up in more difficult circumstances than Iris did, details a treasured childhood memory: “Once, a cardinal alighted on the kitchen windowsill and he found himself squinting long after it had flown away again, trying hard to hold on to its beauty.”
Beauty leaves us, as does, in time, everyone and everything else, but memory lets us hold on for a while.