07 January 2014

Daniel Woodrell - Winter's Bone

I'm assigned to read Daniel Woodrell's newest book, The Maid's Version, for The Maine Readers' Choice Award Longlist, but I decided to preface that book with an earlier Woodrell, Winter's Bone.

It is a visceral, gripping novel, revealing a slice of life that is often ignored in America... grinding rural poverty.

Ree Dolly is a tough 16-yr-old who has left school to care for her mentally-ill mother and her two younger brothers.  It's a hard life.  Food is scarce (squirrel is a treat, as is a gift of a venison haunch).  It's a battle against the cold, resisting the lure of easy money through criminal activity, against the forces of despair that permeate life here in the Missouri Ozarks.
Ree's grand hope was that [her younger brothers] 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. (p.8)
Clannish, to say the least.  

Ree's father has been away from home for some time.  Indicted on methamphetamine charges, we learn that he posts bail by putting up the family home and land.  His court date is approaching but he is nowhere to be found.  Ree is determined to find him, alive or dead, because she loves her father, she believes something terrible has befallen him (she knows just what her kin are capable of), and she knows that without this homestead, her own little family would be scattered lost.

The dialect is beautiful and believable.  Woodrell creates a barren, lonely landscape.  It's hard to have hope in such a colorless, friendless place as this valley, when cooking meth is a way to "make a living," and snorting it is a way to survive the bleak reality.  But Ree maintains hope, even through the brutality of the bitter search for her father.  Secrets are buried deeply in this community.  Very deeply.  We are privy to a glimpse of this rural life rarely seen beyond its borders.  Think about that the next time you whizz by double-wides, cars-on-blocks, junkyard dogs on chains along the state road.

My hometown was a little bit like this. Several families in town had lived there for hundreds of years.  Braileys, Smalls, Libbys, Gammons, Sawyers.  My culturally-French-Canadian, New Hampshire-born parents moved to the town when I was an infant.  Besides being "from away," I was one of less than a handful of practicing Roman Catholics, in an elementary-school classroom of less than 40, in a old-time, descendants-of-the-Calvinists, mainline-Protestant community.  I was an outsider; these families who had lived among each other since before remembered time.  Blood is much thicker than water there.  There may be disagreements (or worse) within the old families, but a threat from the outside trumps even the worst animosities on the inside.  In the end, the wagons are circled.

And so it is in Winter's Bone. Those with an axe to grind lash out when they feel threatened, but in the end they have no wish to upset the tenuous balance of the Dollys.  It's not pretty or fun, but a peace is reached and life goes on.

I read the book, and I watched the movie. Jennifer Lawrence was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Ree.  The book is hard to read, at times, and the film is hard to watch.  But both are worth it.  

Hold your nose and jump in.

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