Red at the Bone is about the complexities of love, youth, parenthood and unsatisfied expectations.
When beautiful Iris becomes pregnant at the age of 15, not only is her life turned upside down, but the lives of her mother, Sabe, her father, Sammy Po‘Boy Simmons and her boyfriend, Aubrey Daniels, are thrust into turmoil. The novel describes each person’s reaction to the pregnancy and the arrival of Melody into their lives and gives the reader insight into the earlier lives of each character.
The novel starts with Melody’s 16th birthday coming out party. Melody is living in her grandparent’s house In Brooklyn, along with her father Aubrey. The adults are marveling over the passage of time. An orchestra is playing Prince’s Darling Nikki and Melody is wearing the coming out dress that Iris was never able to wear. Melody is thinking of the history of the house and her ancestors, musing that “I and everything and everyone around me was their dream come true now. If this moment was a sentence, I’d be the period.” This feeling was a far cry from the reactions to Melody’s arrival 16 years prior.
When Sabre discovered that Iris was pregnant with Aburey’s baby, she tried to beat the baby out of her. She was distraught at the fact that a teen pregnancy could happen in her family. “But when your child shows up with a belly and she’s not even full grown yet…you cry into the night until your throat is raw and there’s not another heave left inside you….so even though you feel like you’re never gonna get out of bed again, you rise…You rise in your Lord & Taylor cashmere coat and refuse to let shame stand beside you.”
Despite all the shame and angst, once Melody is born, there is only love. But Iris needs more and she leaves New York and enrolls in college at Oberlin, far away from Aubrey, Melody and her family. And after she graduates, she does not move in with them but lives in an apartment in Manhattan and sees her daughter on weekends.
Each character has a story. Aubrey is raised by a single mother—highly educated but destitute and untraditional. He has seen his friends go through dangerous experiences, both with drugs and gangs. After he graduates from high school, he goes to work in the mailroom of a law firm in the World Trade Center and that, along with raising his daughter, is enough for him. Iris is not interested in spending her life with him.
Sabre’s outlook on life and wealth was shaped by the experiences of her mother and grandparents. Sabre’s grandmother had a beauty shop in Tulsa and her grandfather had a restaurant. In 1921, white residents burned both down and her grandparents and then two year old mother fled to Chicago to make a new life. That history taught Sabre to hold onto things that could not burn. “I know you hold onto your dreams and you hold onto your money. And I know that paper money burns…you find the men who sell you the blocks of gold. And you take those blocks of gold and stack them beneath your floorboards.”
The novel goes through the normal life cycles and ultimately Sabe and Po’Boy pass on. Iris describes an intense love as feeling “red at the bone—like there was something inside of her undone and bleeding.” The novel is both tragic and hopeful, describing the frustrations and difficulties of the past and the hopes and possibilities of the future. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.