Book Review: Winter’s Bone

winters boneThe Ozarks community in Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone is not quite as chipper as the one from Where The Red Fern Grows. But wow, what a book. I hadn’t heard of this until everyone started fussing about the raves that the movie adaptation was getting up at the Sundance Festival this year, but it is completely deserved. I can’t believe I have never heard of this author before. Woodrell has already written a handful of books, which I will now be tracking down as soon as I get back to work tomorrow morning.

Plot summary of Winter’s Bone

Ree Dolly is 17 years old and lives in a small house in the Ozarks. Her mother has officially lost her marbles, although it’s never revealed exactly what is wrong with her. There is one scene where Ree says “This is exactly the kind of stuff that drove her crazy.” But there aren’t many more clues besides the brutal realities of their lives. Ree is the oldest of four children and is the only one keeping the family alive.

Mom is incapacitated and her father is missing. The fact that he is missing is what propels the book into motion. Ree receives a visit from a police officer who tells her that her father put their family home up for his bond. He was released a week earlier and has now vanished. If he does not come to his trial next week, the family will lose their home. That sounds terrible enough, but being homeless in the place described in Winter’s Bone sounds even worse. I actually watched the film last night after reading the entire book in the morning, and I have to agree with a description Roger Ebert provided in his review:

She treks through a landscape scarcely less ruined than the one in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”

If you have seen or read The Road, that sentence probably makes you shiver a little. It does me.

After the visit from the police officer, Ree goes to find her father. She has to. And that is essentially what happens in the book–she goes from one associate or relative to the next and asks if they know where he is. With each visit and new character that is introduced, we learn a little more about the world Ree lives in. The family is clannish and everyone seems related to each other. This blood-relation, however diluted, is what prompts her suspicious relatives to speak to her, but is also what discourages them from talking to her about her father, for reasons that aren’t clear until late in the story.

The production and selling of illegal substances seem to be the primary industry of the entire place. Her father was mixed up in this, willingly, as most of the novel’s characters seem to be. I can’t talk about her search any more without getting into spoiler territory.

Aside from her hunt, the novel has several scenes of her caring for her siblings and her mother. She teaches them to hunt and skin squirrels, gives them boxing lessons as well as the moral codes for when it is appropriate to fight, and fulfills the duties a capable mother should be doing. Her dream of leaving town and joining the army becomes less likely with every page.

The writing

I’m a William Faulkner fan, but find a lot of his writing unnecessarily convoluted. I would say that Winter’s Bone evokes a mood similar to my favorite Faulkner books with their emphasis on rural Gothic and the  but is nearly impossible to misunderstand or misinterpret. The language is spare but lovely. Mood. Mood is the word that keeps coming back to me. For better or worse, every single paragraph and sentence here feel the same to me. They all convey the same feeling. There are no unnecessary details, but this does not make the world more vague for it. I think the lack of embellishments and flowery language is a mirror of the lives that the people in this place are living, but now I’m starting to venture back into my English major mode, and I’m going to quit.

In a second.

One of the things that keeps echoing in my head is the role of women in this book. I am friends with a local author named Lynn Kilpatrick, and although she will probably argue with me, some of the stories in her wonderful book In The House remind me of scenes and emotions from Winter’s Bone. The potential horrors and prisons of domesticity are amplified a zillion times in Woodrel’s novel, but trapped is trapped. Still, the women in Winter’s Bone are trapped by their situations in what seems like the worst possible way to me, but I’m a man and I don’t live in the Ozarks, so who knows? I did wonder how close to reality it was, regardless. When you read the scenes between Ree and her closest friend, this will make more sense.

I loved this book. I absolutely loved it. It is everything great fiction should be. That’s my Winter’s Bone book summary with everything else pared away. And the movie was fantastic as well. Highly recommended, and please check out Lynn’s work as well.

Josh

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