Daniel Woodrell writes dark, unflinching tales about the rural poor, in a style he calls “country noir”. Not the slightest bit kitschy or sentimental, Woodrell’s beautiful writing in this sad and violent book caught me completely off-guard. He has created one of the most memorable teenage characters I have ever discovered in fiction -- and her story is spectacularly readable and rewardingly provocative.
Winter’s Bone, set in the Missouri Ozarks, is populated with modern hillbillies: jobless people who are desperately poor and living in rundown trailers and ramshackle houses, with methamphetamine labs replacing backwoods moonshine stills. The Dolly family has deep roots in the Rathlin Valley, and almost all of those roots are tangled up with the wrong side of the law.
The heroine, sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly, is searching for her father, Jessup, a crank cooker who jumped bail after posting the family house as part of his court bond. Ree has one week to track down her father or her family (Ree, her mentally ill mother, and her 8 and 10-year-old brothers) will be left homeless.
Ree's beloved Mom, with "her mind broke and the parts scattered", is rendered near-catatonic with morning medications and only slightly more lucid from evening ones. Two little brothers are hungry and needy and in danger of following the Dolly tradition of being “dead to wonder by age twelve.” The boys missed out on their parents' better years, when they were still physically and mentally present enough to actually parent. Ree is the only parent the boys have ever known; teaching them to shoot, to hunt, to cook, to box, to wash their fragile mama's hair. Survival skills both harsh and kind. She also shows them pictures, teaching them about the years back, when their mother was beautiful and vibrant, when their father was present.
This is a violent, dark, mean tale. There is no sugar-coating here: it almost all hurts but is redeemed by tiny moments of kindness, by the gentleness of the roughest characters. There are some laugh-aloud funny bits, that sweeten things up a bit, but it is not a book for the squeamish. Drugs are neither glorified nor vilified, they are part of the story. Bad people do good things, good folks do wrong. Messages are left for the reader to sort out.
Woodrell's beautiful phrasing, his ear for the language of the Ozarks and for describing things most of us can barely fathom, let alone articulate, raises this brief novel up. It is a powerful book! Weird, rough and strangely poetic, this is a book that will give you a lot to think about. The Dolly clan also appears in Woodrell’s earlier book, Give Us a Kiss