Sunday 29 December 2019

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson #USfiction

I'm struggling, at the moment, to find the right words to describe my reading experiences, yet at the same time, I'm going through an amazing reading phase, with three back to back stunners. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, Girl, Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo and now Red at the Bone.

My journey with Red at the Bone began about three months ago when our rep gave me an ARC and said 'watch this one, it could take off.'

I then spotted it on several of the lists that Kate @Books Are My Favourite and Best listed on her list of lists for 2019.

When I finished Olive, Again the weekend before Christmas, I wanted something completely different, new and slim. Red at the Bone jumped out of my TBR pile for all those reasons...and I'm so glad it did.

But how to review such a splendid reading experience?

Normally I avoid Goodread reviews and other blogs until after I've finished reading and reviewing the book myself, but when I'm struggling to write, I will turn to outside sources to find inspiration, or in this case to find a spark to fire me up.

Most of the reviews reflected my time with the book. They loved the writing style, they loved the family and their strength and resilience.

However, one reviewer caught my eye. She talked about the misery heaped upon misery that made it impossible for her to read or enjoy this book. I was left wondering if we had even read the same book! As the day wore on, I could feel a response forming, a rebuttal building up that had to be proclaimed.

I didn't know whether to feel sad or envious that someone could see the events depicted in this novel as misery upon misery. Had this reviewer had such a fortunate life that they and their extended family had never experienced any of the things within this story? Or was there something else at play that I wasn't aware of?

In the lifetime of the three generations in this particular family, we had some racial and gender discrimination events, a teenage pregnancy, a move, illness, some LGBTQ issues and eventually a death or two. We also had love and hope and resilience. We had a family living in the times they were born into as gracefully as they could. Different personalities coped in different ways. The times they lived in impacted on the choices they could make.

This was a family that valued hard work and education...and family. Because ultimately, during those times in all our lives when things go pear-shaped, it's the love and support of family that gets you through. I couldn't see any of these events as misery heaped upon misery. I just saw well-lived lives full of the joy and drama of human existence. Things most of go through at different times.

I understand that a structure that jumps between time lines and points of view is not for everyone. If it's just a device to hang a story on, then I get frustrated too, but Woodson used the different time lines and points of view to circle around one big event, that changed everything for those left behind. The poetic writing style may not suit everyone either, but I love elegant distillers of beautiful language, so I happily went along for the ride.

I didn't know anything about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, but I do now. It wasn't necessary to have a full understanding of this event, to appreciate the choices the family made, as the story was about the consequences of those choices rather than an expose of the event itself. It was simply part of the family back story, much like the Depression and WWII informed my grandparents and parents views of the world. A powerful memory for those who lived it, but fading to insignificance for the generations that follow, who have their own demons or life-changing events to negotiate. Woodson was adept at exposing this generational divide.

As an outside observer, I'm acutely conscious of the race issues that plague America. They play out on our screens, in the books we read and on the news. In Australia, we have enough of our own issues to go on with, yet somehow, the American experience seeps into ours as well. Such complex topics are not easy to solve or discuss and they attract a wide variety of opinions, including the 'let's draw a line in the sand and call it done' approach. Simplistic solutions like this will never work all the while there are people alive who remember. Because memory becomes story, which then gets passed down from one generation to the next. All the while there is memory and story, that line in the sand will constantly shift.

However, we can choose which memories we turn into stories. And we can choose how to tell those stories. We can choose what lessons we want to learn and which ones we want to pass down to future generations. Woodson has chosen trauma triumphed by love.

I for one, will be looking out for more work by Woodson. Her voice and style appealed to me and I want to know more.


  1. Well, just when I decided to read
    come an introduce me to a interesting American female writer!
    Excellent review... and an looking forward to reading this "painful but true' book.
    I still have 2 more days in 2019...can I read "Red at the Bone" before Big Ben chimes (...or perhaps does not b/c it is in repair)? Otherwise I will be putting it on my 2021 Fiction Reading list!

    1. I was able to read Red at the Bone in 3-4 days over Christmas, so you could probably polish it off in a day :-)

  2. A thoughtful review, thanks for sharing it Brona.

  3. While I can see the basis for that other reader's response to this book, I'm with you in finding it a story of resilience rather than despair. And if you enjoyed this one so much, I also recommend her Brown Girl Dreaming, which I gobbled in a single reading session. Just lovely. (I read a children's book by her, which another reading friend suggested, and I can't remember what it was called, but it was very good too!)

    1. I remember hearing about Brown Girl Dreaming when it first came out; definitely want to read it now.


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