A knock at the door brings hard news for 16-year-old Ree Dolly. Her father has skipped bail on charges of running a meth lab, and if he doesn’t show for his next court date, the Dollys will lose their house.
This isn’t the first time Ree’s father has disappeared. The Dolly clan has always worked on the shadowy side of the law, and arrests (and attempts to avoid arrest) are a regular part of Rathlin Valley life. But Ree can’t afford to lose the house; she just can’t. With two younger brothers depending on her and a mother suffering from mental illness, the house is literally all she’s got. So regardless of the cost, she sets out to find her father and bring him back… or at least, his body. The possibility that he’s been murdered isn’t so remote.
Winter’s Bone is a novel of tremendous beauty and tremendous ugliness. Set against the harsh, poverty-stricken backdrop of the Ozark underworld, it weaves a haunting tale of perseverance and family loyalty, underscored by the constant threat of violence.
I first became aware of the book when I watched the film based on it. The excellence of Debra Granik’s adaption prompted me to seek out the original, and I finally managed to snatch up a copy at the library last week.
I have absolutely no complaints about Daniel Woodrell as a writer. He is magnificent. Girding his story with chilly yet lyrical prose, he deftly compliments the gritty Ozark landscape in which his characters live, move, and have their being. His knack for vivid description is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy:
Clouds looked to be splitting on distant peaks, dark rolling bolts torn around the mountaintops to patch the blue sky with grim. Frosty wet began to fall, not as flakes nor rain but as tiny white wads that burst as drops landing and froze a sudden glaze atop the snow. The bringing wind rattled the forest, shook limb against limb, and a wild tapping noise carried all about. Now and then a shaking limb gave up and split from the trunk to land below with a sound like a final grunt. (p. 58)
With this excellent writing comes the story of a little woman warrior who will stop at nothing to keep the roof over her family’s head. She’s threatened, insulted, and even beaten bloody – and onward she goes, fueled by loyalty to the ones in her care.
The love she exhibits toward her two younger brothers is especially poignant. Sure, she can be rough-around-the-edges, but the depth of her sisterly affection is unquestionable. “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back,” she tells them, and we know she means every word of it.
Therein lies the beauty of the book – in its prose and in its story. Now for the ugliness.
When I watched the film Winter’s Bone, I was impressed by the sparing use of strong language and the absence of sexuality. It wasn’t family friendly by any means, but it was far cleaner than most R-rated movies. Unfortunately, that restraint is lacking in the novel. Conversations are shellacked with profanity (including many uses of the F-word), and there’s some fairly explicit sexual content.
That being the case, I’m going to offer a strong warning to potential readers: the good in this book is more than matched by the bad. Winter’s Bone is like a dark road full of sharp rocks. You will inevitably cut your feet. And I can’t say with certainty that the destination is worth it.
So I’m going to conclude my review with a recommendation I never thought I’d give: set the book aside and watch the movie instead. You’ll get the same incredible story, without the overdose of grime.