Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone

Before I had heard of Daniel Woodrell, I saw and enjoyed the movie Winter’s Bone, based on his 2006 novel of the same name. I wasn’t alone: audiences and film critics all over the world warmed to the plight of 16-year-old Ree Dolly, tasked with finding her missing father before his bail – on charges of cooking crytal meth – is declared forfeit and Ree loses possession of her ancestral home, where she takes care of her two younger brothers and her mentally unwell mother. It’s a pitiable situation, but Ree is a force unto herself, despite her age and her stature, and her quiet determination to pursue the truth of her father’s disappearance and save her family hold readers rapt throughout her investigations.

When we are first introduced to Ree, she is contemplating the coming frosts and the challenges they will bring her family: the wash must be dried indoors, and sufficient wood chopped (“Ree knew there was no gas for the chain saw”) to keep them warm. It is, conspicuously, the role of the father she is now stepping into, but Woodrell has already hinted at her competence in his description:

Ree, brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellowed dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again. She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs.

Every sentence, every word, of the above paragraph serves his purpose: the milk skin and yellowed dress attest to her youth and girlhood, while the combat boots, the powerful arms and shoulders, certify that her body has been “made for loping after needs,” the needs of her family. And, of course, she stands tall in the face of the harsh winter winds. Later, Woodrell will describe her cutting wood, and the impression of strength and competence is amplified:

Her swings were practiced and powerful, short potent whacks. Splinters flew, wood split, the pile grew. Ree’s nose ran and the blood came up in her face and made pink on her cheeks. She pinched two fingers high on her nose, snorted a splat to the ground, dragged a sleeve across her face, swung the ax again.

In the distance, she can neighbouring homes, and the animal carcasses – spoils of recent hunts – that they’ve hung out to dry on trees, a painful reminder of their abundance and her poverty (in one of the most memorable of the novel’s scenes, she will hunt squirrels for meat with a BB gun). The danger, in writing so competent a character, is making them superhuman, and one of Woodrell’s devices for demonstrating the toll Ree’s responsibilities take on her is her chosen method of escape: not cigarettes, drugs or alcohol – the preferred escape vehicles in her community – but a recording of tranquil beach sounds, to transport her far from her cares. Here is such a scene of escape, quoted in full, for Woodrell writes wonderfully well, and half the joy of this novel consists of being spellbound by his manner of telling it:

As the frosty bits dwindled the wind slowed and big snowflakes began falling as serenely as anything could fall the distance from the sky. Ree listened to lapping waves of far shores while snowflakes gathered on her. She sat unmoving and let snow etch her outline in deepening clean whiteness. The valley seemed in twilight though it was not yet noon. The three houses across the creek put on white shawls and burning lights squinted golden from the windows. Meat still hung from limbs in the side yards, and snow began clinging to the limbs and meat. Ocean waves kept sighing to shore while snow built everywhere she could see.

These moments of serenity are punctured, repeatedly, by the dialogue, which is coarse and mean, as rough as the Ozarks. Woodrell is as adept at conjuring the accents and idioms of rural Missouri as he is at evoking the beauty of a forest in winter, and in Winter’s Bone he puts both skills to excellent use.

The world of Winter’s Bone is not one of families but of clans, and clans have long memories. Feuds begun by fathers and grandfathers are remembered and renewed, long after the initial cause of hostility has been forgotten. Differences are settled between individuals, without recourse to the law. “You got to be ready to die every day – then you have a chance,” as one character puts it. This is an honor culture, where name and reputation carry weight, and by her actions, Ree Dolly proves herself capable of operating within it, even if she yearns to enlist in the military and escape it. But her ordeal is Job-like in its burden, and Woodrell mines it for every last bit of pathos before he delivers her – and us.