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Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

August 25, 2011

Like Hemmingway or Cormac McCarthy or John Clinch, Daniel Woodrell’s writing is inseparable from place. He conjures the voice of a people, in this case the poor, rural area of the Ozarks where he was born and where he now lives.

On the first page of Winter’s Bone, we find Ree Dolly, “brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes,” on the front porch of her small home, looking across the creek to where the neighbor’s house where deer carcasses hang outside. Inside the house is a host of problems. Her two younger siblings are hungry. Her mother is mentally ill. And her father, we soon find out, a meth-cooking parolee, has put the house and surrounding property up for bail then proceeded to disappear. If Ree doesn’t turn him up, she and her family will be put out into the cold.

It is an incredible burden for a young girl, but Ree bears it heroically. It becomes clear throughout the novel that her character is pure, and she will do anything for her family. Woodrell also deftly manages his burden—after a setup that could slip easily into the cliché of poking fun at poor white southerners or a kind of backwoods pop fiction whodunit plot, Woodrell steers away into original characters and original storytelling. He manages the stereotypes of interwoven bloodlines and feuding families, crank cooks and bail bondsmen and creates a style he calls “semi-Southern, kinda gothic.” He pulls you in a little at a time, and the story gets darker and darker, and the characters get meaner and meaner, and Ree just keeps moving forward because there really is no other choice for her.

I saw the film adaptation of Winter’s Bone before I read the book, then again after. It’s an excellent film, and very faithful to the book. I highly recommend both.

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