Little, Brown & Company, 2006, 208 pages
The sheriff's deputy at the front door brings hard news to Ree Dolly. Her father has skipped bail on charges that he ran a crystal meth lab, and the Dollys will lose their house if he doesn't show up for his next court date.
Ree's father has disappeared before. The Dolly clan has worked the shadowy side of the law for generations, and arrests (and attempts to avoid them) are part of life in Rathlin Valley. With two young brothers depending on her and a mother who's entered a kind of second childhood, 16-year-old Ree knows she has to bring her father back, dead or alive. She has grown up in the harsh poverty of the Ozarks and learns quickly that asking questions of the rough Dolly clan can be a fatal mistake. But along the way to a shocking revelation, Ree discovers unforeseen depths in herself and in a family network that protects its own at any cost.
“Ree Dolly stood at the break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. Carcasses hung pale of flesh with fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.”
Not so long ago, I had little interest in literary fiction. All pretty words produced by MFA creative writing instructors, the sort of people who sneered at Stephen King, who still sneer at genre fiction. But sneering at litfic is a kind of snobbery itself. A lot of "genre" fans have such narrowly-defined definitions of what appeals to them in a story that they don't realize that many "literary" or "contemporary" or cross-genre stories probably would appeal to them if they could let go of their insistence that there be steampunk gizmos or vampires on the cover.
Winter's Bone at its core is the same sort of story that drives a lot of popular YA fiction: a sixteen-year-old girl, a family to take care of, dark secrets, friends making bad choices, violent confrontations, a protagonist who perseveres with grit and guts.
Okay, it's lacking in hot boys, and the prose might require the average YA reader to stretch their brain just a little bit. It's not "difficult," but it doesn't serve you teaspoon-sized sentences full of squee. The language is crafted and knotty like Ozark furniture, astringent Faulkneresque prose, and there is, you know, subtext. Stuff that's not spelled out for you. Inferences and judgments that require you to draw a bit on life experience.
Ree's grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law. There were two hundred Dollys, plus Lockrums, Boshells, Tankerslys, and Langans, who were basically Dollys by marriage, living within thirty miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful kin in a pinch. The rough Dollys were plenty peppery and hard-boiled toward one another, but were unleashed hell on enemies, scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own. Sometimes when Ree fed Sonny and Harold oatmeal suppers they would cry, sit there spooning down oatmeal but crying for meat, eating all there was while crying for all there could be, become wailing little cyclones of want and need, and she would fear for them.
Ree bears the weight of the world on her shoulders, the weight of her world, which is two little brothers she desperately wants to not grow up mean and bad and high on crank, like most of her kin, and she has no idea how she's going to prevent it. Her mother is useless, a former alcoholic who has mentally checked out completely. And her father, Jessup, cooks meth. He's in and out of their lives, and when he goes missing before a court date, the sheriff's deputy tells Ree that her father put up their house for his bond; if he doesn't appear, they'll be kicked out.
Ree nearly fell but would not let it happen in front of the law. She heard thunder clapping between her ears and Beelzebub scratchin' a fiddle. The boys and her and Mom would be dogs in the fields without this house. They would be dogs in the fields with Beelzebub scratchin' out tunes and the boys'd have a hard hard shove toward unrelenting meanness and the roasting shed and she'd be stuck alongside them 'til steel doors clanged shut and the flames rose. She'd never get away from her family as planned, off to the U.S. Army, where you got to travel with a gun and they made everybody help keep things clean. She'd never have only her own concerns to tote. She'd never have her own concerns.
Ree could give up and crumble, like her mother. Or she could walk away, like her father. Or she could become just another beaten-down woman trapped with the first guy who knocks her up, like her best friend Gail.
Gail had a baby named Ned who was four months old, and a new look of baffled hurt, a left-behind sadness, like she saw that the great world kept spinning onward and away while she'd overnight become glued to her spot.
Instead, she goes looking for her father. Everyone but her seems to know what happened to him, and no one will tell her. The generational effects of the blood-soaked culture of "honor" among outlaws is illustrated starkly by the beaten-down women and the beaten-hard men. Ree tests all sorts of Ozarker "codes" - what you can and cannot expect kin to provide, what girls are and are not expected to do - and she gets punished heavily for pushing when she's told not to. But the fact that she just won't fucking quit forces respect even from her violent meth-addled hick neighbors.
"You was warned. You was warned nice'n you wouldn't listen — why didn't you listen?"
"I can't listen. I can't just listen."
She moved her head slowly, wobbling as she aimed her good eye, and saw that there were others in the barn. Shapes milling by the open double door, wearing man hats, smoking, watching in silence. One of the man hats stepped near. Megan squatted, patted Ree's face, and said, "Whatever are we to do about you, baby girl? Huh?"
"Kill me, I guess."
"That idea has been said already. Got'ny other ones?"
"Help me. Ain't nobody said that idea yet, have they?"
Ree's quest is the heart of the book, but it's the people who prop the story up. Ree's relationship with her family, and with Gail, are full of nuance delivered in blunt dialog. Like her conversation with Floyd, Gail's husband, who's a loser, but in a brief, crude conversation expresses his own sense of being trapped, of knowing how much this sucks for all of them.
He said, "You think you get it, but you don't. I mean, you oughta try it your own self sometime. Get drunk one night and wind up married to somebody you don't hardly know."
"I know her real good."
"Yes'm, girl, you oughta go'n get yourself good'n drunk one night and have you a kid. I mean it."
"No thanks. I already got two. Not countin' Mom."
Floyd's arc of piss slackened and slackened until he shook the last drops loose.
"Nobody here wants to be awful," he said. He hopped a little as he zipped up. "It's just nobody here knows all the rules yet, and that makes a rocky time."
Then there are the parts that almost flash by. Gail comes to stay with Ree for a while, while Ree is trying to find her father, and there's a line or two of subtext and then one brief conversation when Gail says she's going back to Floyd.
Ree said, "You didn't like it? You gonna tell me you didn't like it?"
"I liked it. I liked it, but not enough."
The book is full of moments like this, lines that make you go sheeeeit yeah....
This is how sudden things happened that haunted forever.
“I said shut up once already, with my mouth.”
"You got to be ready to die every day - then you got a chance."
Before she was Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence was Ree Dolly
The movie is excellent, and very faithful to the book, lifting almost every scene and line of dialog straight from Woodrell's prose. Definitely see the movie and read the book.
Even if Jennifer Lawrence hadn't starred in both movies, the comparisons between Winter's Bone and The Hunger Games would be obvious. Ree Dolly and Katniss Everdeen are both girls living in oppressive backwoods squalor, forced to hunt squirrels to feed their younger siblings, trying to take care of a family with a mother who's gone mentally and a father who's gone physically... it's amazing more people don't accuse Suzanne Collins of ripping off Daniel Woodrell than Koushun Takami. The life-and-death struggles of the Dolly clan are every bit as bleak and violent as those of District 12, except, you know, real.
In style and heart, though, Winter's Bone is much closer to True Grit. Ree is a little older and a lot more worldly than Maddie Ross, but Ree is more like Maddie, self-possessed, unswerving, implacable, you can beat her but you can't deter her, than the passive pushed-and-prodded-into-action protagonist of The Hunger Games. Winter's Bone is a more grown-up tale than either of these other two books; it's got not just blood, but shit and piss and puke, not gratuitous but in all the places where human beings are messier than they can hope to be on film. It's ugly and beautiful and equally raw in both aspects. It ends on a bleakly hopeful note: you can believe Ree might somehow pull free of the gravity of violence and poverty exerted by the Ozarks, but it's not a sure bet, and almost certainly she won't be able to pull all her family with her.
Have you read Winter's Bone?
Have you seen the movie Winter's Bone?
Verdict: Winter's Bone is too proud to wear the label YA, but just as Cormac McCarthy makes grimdark fantasy shit in its pants, Daniel Woodrell delivers everything that fans of so-called dystopian fiction should be able to appreciate: a tough, resourceful but human protagonist, outgunned in a deadly, gritty environment trying to save her family. But sorry, no hot boys.
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