Daniel Woodrell “Winter’s Bone” – It is life near the bone, where it is sweetest

November 20, 2011

Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone (2006) is one of those terse, perfectly worded and incredibly put together novels that takes a solid hold of you and won’t let go. It speaks in the patios of the Ozarks and introduces its characters with a minimum of fuss and drops you solidly into the haunting beauty of the landscape and the inner workings of an old and too-well established community that lives mostly by its own rules, seeing the world at large as an afterthought.

Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly’s crystal meth cooking father Jessup has gone missing. She is left to fend for her two younger brothers and her addled mother. There is no sense in this that that’s anything other than business as usual for Ree, who shoulders the responsibility without any kind of teenage angst or complaint. She simply steps up and does whatever has to be done, weather that means teaching her brothers to gut a squirrel or hunt down the corpse of her father to prove to the authorities that he didn’t show up in court because he is dead, and not because he is skipping bail.

Ree is that rarest of flowers, a female lead protagonist who is not a wilting delicate rose and who is engagingly intelligent and has a core made of solid steel. She is strong in every sense of the word, and stubborn to boot, and determined. It is not a case of her fighting insurmountable odds and coming out a triumphant hero, which she does, and is, but rather a case of her simply doing whatever has to be done with a stoic deep sense of loyalty and necessity.

The community is archaically patriarchal and the rules by which all these Dollys are supposed to live adhere more to that than to the outside polite laws of society. This is a poor, working class gone outlaw bunch and they all drink, do drugs and carry on their lives more by tribe rule than anything else. Family matters here in a way it never could in a big city. Which last name you carry and who you know is more important than anything else, both when it comes to taking care of your own and when it comes to who you can afford to piss off.

Ree has some people in her corner, like the crank addicted uncle Teardrop and her best friend Gail, but every character in this story has their own sorrows and their own troubles and even when they want to help, they still have their own concerns.

The language mirrors the characters perfectly. It is poetic and literary, but underscored with bleak practicality as is well illustrated in this passage where Ree is teaching her brothers to hunt.

The needed skill was silence. Along the dangle of knotted branches gray squirrels crouched utterly still as the day roused. They were alarmed by every sound but not long alarmed by any. The dawn air held the cold of night but there was no breeze and squirrels soon lost their fear of the new day and moved out along the branches. Easy meat for the table with naught but silence and a small bullet required. (Winter’s Bone, 102).

The whole narrative has this dual quality of depth and perception shot through with a kind of bare bones necessity for survival and continuation that makes it an exceedingly pleasant read. There’s substance, very clear characterisation and a story arc that keeps a spanking pace. The sense that forbearance and the fact that Ree is tough as old boot leather simply because she does not know any other way to be, makes this one of the best novels I’ve read in a while.

Daniel Woodrell is from this neck of the woods and has the ability to capture it succinctly without any kind of romanticism. He describes the slow decay and oddly delicate poverty of the region with an understanding that makes it simply a depiction of these characters lives and not in any way exploitative or sentimental. It is in that lack of sentimentality that this particular novel shines.



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