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Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

March 27, 2011

Daniel Woodrell’s best-known work is the novel on which the film Winter’s Bone, nominated for best picture in 2011, was based. The setting for Tomato Red is the same—a poor, rural section of the Ozark mountains.

The book’s protagonist, Sammy Barlach, is a small-time thief who runs into a couple other small-time thieves, brother and sister Jason and Jamalee, while pulling a small-time theft at a wealthy home. Jason and Jamalee live across the street from their mother, a small-time prostitute. Everything about this book seems small. The moments are small. The world is small. The ambitions of the characters are certainly small. But Woodrell manages to bring to this smallness big themes—of fairness and violence and morality.

“You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen…” begins Tomato Red. There is a theme of the inevitable: a sense that things are predestined to be as they are, that there are things you just don’t do but if you do them you know what’s going to happen to you. And there is some superb writing with observations like a description of a house built so close to the tracks that a train going by at breakfast means everyone’s having their eggs scrambled.

Woodrell treats his characters with the utmost respect—we might judge them foolish or petty or redneck or whatever we decide, but that is for the reader. Mostly what we see is a reality where there are few options and, like Winter’s Bone (speaking of the film; the book is still on my shelf), we are left gritting our teeth and feeling that even though the characters are responsible for their actions, there is an unfair magnitude to the confines of their small world and the consequences of their small actions.


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