Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. In Red at the Bone, two families from different social classes are brought together by an unexpected pregnancy. How do you think the lives of the characters—from each family—might have been different if Melody had never been conceived? Which characters gained or lost the most, ultimately, as a result of this unplanned child? Consider all the many ways in which their fortunes were altered.
2. Consider the title and how it works with the story. Why do you think the author chose it? What does the phrase mean to you?
3. The author dedicates the book to “the ancestors, a long long line of you bending and twisting.” How does the story explore the idea of legacy? How does it look at the passing down of regret and loss and trauma and history, and also of love and guidance and wisdom and experience? Discuss your own legacies: What have you inherited in this way from your ancestors, and what will be passed on to future generations? How do these legacies compare to the legacies in Red at the Bone?
4. The story begins and ends in Brooklyn, but incorporates the stories of how both Iris and Aubrey’s families came to live there, and also watches Iris experiment with living elsewhere. In your own experience, how strong or important is the connection between people and place? Do you think people and their lives are shaped by their relationships with the places they are from and their feelings about home? Do you see this illustrated in the story, in any particular characters or storylines? What do you think of Iris’s decision to stay away from her family? Can you empathize with her?
5. The theme of mothers and daughters is one that plays throughout the book, and we begin and end the novel with Iris and Melody. How would you describe their relationship? Do you think their relationship has progressed, regressed, or otherwise changed by the conclusion of the novel? In what ways are Iris and Melody similar and in what ways are they different?
6. When Aubrey first brings Iris to his house, he feels a kind of shame about his mother and his way of life that he never experienced before. Consider the different ways in which Aubrey and Iris’s class differences manifest within their relationship. How do those differences affect their relationship as teenagers? As adults? How do other characters in the novel grapple with their class? Consider the upbringings of CathyMarie, Aubrey, Sabe, Melody, and Iris. What do you think the novel is saying about the relationship between race, class, and education?
7. Some of the big historic events that happen in the background of the narrative include the Tulsa massacre of 1921, the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s, and the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001. How does the author use these events in the book? What do they provide to the structure of the story and time line? What do they contribute to our emotional understanding of the characters? Are the individual characters changed by these events? Do you see this history influencing their outlooks and their ambitions or their legacies? As a child Iris fought with Sabe about the Tulsa story, claiming it wasn’t her history. Is Iris right? Can history truly belong to someone? And who is allowed to tell the story?
8. Discuss the use of musical references in the novel. How does “Darling Nikki” shape our impression of Melody in the first chapter? How does music aid in telling the stories of the other characters and their respective generations: Sabe and Po’Boy? Iris and Aubrey? Slip Rock and CathyMarie?
9. What do we learn about the characters from the way they show their love to each other: From Aubrey’s love of his mother? From Iris’s love of Jam? From Sabe’s love of Po’Boy? From Melody’s love of Malcolm, and vice versa? How does time away from the loved one affect that love? Are there right ways and wrong ways to love, and if so, who exemplifies them within the novel?
10. What do you think the author is saying, ultimately, about generational trauma? Sabe declares: “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 you think she means by this? How does this goneness affect their lives and relationships with others? Is there an opposite to goneness, and if so, is it achievable for any of the characters?