Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Winter’s Bone is the story of sixteen-year-old Ree who lives with her parents and two younger brothers in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. When the novel opens, Ree’s father Jessup has disappeared and he is in trouble with the law so the sheriff is looking for him. Ree finds out that Jessup has put up the family’s house and land as bond so that if he doesn’t appear in court, they will lose everything they have. So Ree sets out to look for Jessup, determined that her family will not suffer.

The settlement in the Ozarks is isolated from the outside world, huddled in a desolately beautiful icy landscape. Ree is a Dolly, which has a particular meaning in the book. The Dollys live harsh lives and have no time for the law or the urban way of life. They settle disagreements in their own violent way but protect each other against outsiders so that when Ree tells the people she meets on her search that she is a Dolly it can make them more inclined to help her. But being a Dolly can also mean leading an empty life consumed by hatred. One reason that Ree is so desperate to keep the house and land is so that she can give her brothers the best upbringing she can and help them to avoid what she fears is their destiny.

Ree’s grand hope was that these boys 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.

Certain names are repeated through the generations of Dollys, and these names represent the Dolly traditions, seeming to predestine those men to a certain kind of life. The novel is weighed down by a heavy sense of fate while describing Ree’s attempts to make sure she and her brothers escape it.

If you named a son Milton it was a decision that attempted to chart the life he’d live before he even stepped into it, for among the Dollys the name carried expectations and history. Some names could rise to walk many paths in many directions, but Jessups, Arthurs, Haslams and Miltons were born to walk only the beaten Dolly path to the shadowed place, live and die in keeping with those bloodline customs fiercest held.

With so much violence and revenge, the novel has an Old Testament feeling. Although it is set in the present day, I felt there was always an awareness of the ancient past. The mixture of the novel’s timeless, mythological setting with everyday modern life creates a unique atmosphere. At one point Ree goes to hide in a cave where her ancestors lived and we discover the story of how the settlement was formed. The isolated community has its own history and legends which shape the lives of its present inhabitants.

One of the things I liked about this book was the writing style, which is quite idiosyncratic. It is compressed and poetic and sometimes the words are in a slightly unusual order or odd inventive pieces of slang slip in. This helps to create an unfamiliar and self-enclosed world that I found quite vivid. Although it contains elements of harshness and violence, the novel is almost like a fairy tale in its depiction of a community hidden away from the outside world, the bleakness of the mountain landscape and the blanket of snow covering it.

I also appreciated the interesting characters, especially Ree, her brothers, her intimidating uncle Teardrop and her best friend Gail. While looking for her father, Ree encounters many different people and asks them for help. Some are on her side while others want to harm her and it is difficult to tell which is which. In fact many of the characters are ambiguous and shifting and it is difficult for Ree to be sure about them or to trust them, making the book partly about the balance between her self-reliance and her acceptance of the occasional kindness from those around her.

Ree herself is a very independent and brave character. Even though she is only sixteen, she takes responsibility for her brothers, teaching them how to shoot and cook so they can look after themselves. Her mother is unable to help because she is suffering from severe depression and spends most of the day sitting in the house silently. The story of Ree’s mother is very sad, especially when the novel shows Ree and her brothers looking at old photographs of how she used to be ‘when her parts were gathered and she’d stood complete with sparking dark eyes and a fast laugh’. Her breakdown was not because of a lack of resilience – quite the opposite, she is described as tough, having endured many troubles before her life finally became too difficult to bear.

This book wasn’t really like anything else I’d read although it did slightly remind me of Morvern Callar by Alan Warner, because of its independent heroine, the vividness of the isolated setting (in America rather than Scotland though!) and unusual writing style. It is also a film which I’d seen before I read the book and would very much recommend.

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4 comments
  1. Great review, Sarah. I bought this a while back because I’ve heard so many good things about the author and from what you write it seems he is well-worth discovering. Maybe it this Old Testament feel that gives it a fairy tale quality, it seems so archaic. I wanted to watch the movie but think I’ll read the book first.

    • Sarah said:

      Thanks! He is definitely worth reading. I hadn’t heard of him until I saw the movie though.

  2. nymeth said:

    What Caroline said! I have heard wonderful things about the movie but I think this is the first time I see a review of the book. I need to read it, then watch the adaptation.

    • Sarah said:

      Yes, they are both very good! I think the movie is quite faithful to the book.

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