Review of Winter's Bone
Daniel Woodrell’s Country Noir Tale
In the Ozarks a young woman searches for her meth-cook father who has put up their house for his bail bond only to disappear.
Ree Dolly’s life is one of rural poverty and intense responsibility as she struggles to raise her two younger brothers in the frequent absence of their criminal father and invalid mother. When she learns they may lose the house—the only stable element in their lives—Ree sets out to question her lawless, extended family about the whereabouts of her father before the bail bondsman comes to repossess the property.
What really makes this novel succeed are the characters and the powerful sense of the setting. The protagonist, Ree Dolly, is sixteen yet is forced by a sense of responsibility to her family to behave with more maturity and backbone than many of the adults in the novel. All the while she dreams of ways to escape the burdens of her responsibility be it through mood relaxation music or dreams of joining the army to travel far away. Uncle Teardrop—a disfigured multiple felon—is terrifying because of his physical injuries, his jailhouse tattoos, and his unpredictability even when he is not using meth. His presence injects tension into the novel because the reader never knows if he’ll try to help or hinder Ree. Gail, Ree’s best friend since childhood, is already a mother, and over the course of the story the readers see their friendship strain as each is pulled by their respective feelings of family responsibility.
The Ozarks appear both beautiful and frightening in Winter’s Bone. Because everyone lives in such isolation from mainstream society the characters and the reader get to experience a rich landscape of dense woods, winding creeks, unpaved roads, and the constant cold weight of winter. In contrast most of the characters are materially impoverished, and those who aren’t owe their wealth to the illicit narcotics trade. In fact the outlaw life is something of a birthright to many in Ree’s family, and this quality is something they all struggle with since it is powerful enough to predetermine their lives toward continued crime and poverty. This mindset will be familiar to any fans of the series based television series, Elmore LeonardJustified.
Southern Literary Legacy
With the primal intensity of the Ozark setting and crushing internal and external struggles, Woodrell’s novel reads like an inheritor to both the themes and style of authors such as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy’s earlier works like The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark. The setting of the novel is one of a natural world that is powerful and ruthless, so those who populate it are equally hard and ready for sudden violence. These qualities cut both ways since Ree has the strength to shoulder the burdens of her family, but other characters like Thump Milton whose face is “a monument of Ozark stone, with juts and angles and cold shaded parts the sun never touched” survive and thrive because they are just as harsh as the world around them (133).
Winter’s Bone is a forceful novel that reads surprisingly fast, likely because the plot provides structure and deadlines that prove as strong and inevitable as the setting, so the action is always propelled forward. This book should be on the reading list of anyone interested in contemporary Southern literature or just good, solid writing.
Woodrell, Daniel. Winter’s Bone. New York; Back Bay Books, 2006.
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© 2010 Seth Tomko