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Winter's Bone - Daniel Woodrell
“Ree Dolly stood at the break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. Carcasses hung pale of flesh with fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.”

This is why I read more literary fiction now. It's why I have made such a turnabout from my not-long-ago days of sneering at litfic as pretty words spewed out by MFAs at the expense of plot and characterization. Oh, I still love my genre books, and there are plenty of litfic writers who leave me slow-clapping unmoved (I'm looking at you, Philip Roth and David Foster Wallace and John Banville), but Winter's Bone is a novel that is as accessible as anything on the YA shelves, and it's about a sixteen-year-old girl and full of drama and adventure (and some sex), but it's not YA because it's got some stylized writing that might force the YA-junkie's brain to stretch ever so slightly, and there are no vampires or zombies or dystopian governments, and a hot boy is not the heroine's reward at the end of the novel.

Winter's Bone is set in the modern-day Ozarks, a place where Daniel Woodrell (who has a MFA) grew up and still lives. Not the pretty Ozark towns and tourist resorts, but the back backwoods, a violent, insular, dirt-poor place, where the people are hard, poor, and proud, and most of the region's GDP comes from meth.

Ree Dolly is a sixteen-year-old girl who carries her entire family on her shoulders. She has two younger brothers and a mother who's permanently checked out, mentally.

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. There were two hundred Dollys, plus Lockrums, Boshells, Tankerslys, and Langans, who were basically Dollys by marriage, living within thirty miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful kin in a pinch. The rough Dollys were plenty peppery and hard-boiled toward one another, but were unleashed hell on enemies, scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own. Sometimes when Ree fed Sonny and Harold oatmeal suppers they would cry, sit there spooning down oatmeal but crying for meat, eating all there was while crying for all there could be, become wailing little cyclones of want and need, and she would fear for them.

Her father is a meth cook who's in and out of their lives. When he goes missing before a court date, the sheriff's deputy tells Ree that her father put up their house as his bond, and if he doesn't show, they'll be kicked out.

Ree nearly fell but would not let it happen in front of the law. She heard thunder clapping between her ears and Beelzebub scratchin' a fiddle. The boys and her and Mom would be dogs in the fields without this house. They would be dogs in the fields with Beelzebub scratchin' out tunes and the boys'd have a hard hard shove toward unrelenting meanness and the roasting shed and she'd be stuck alongside them 'til steel doors clanged shut and the flames rose. She'd never get away from her family as planned, off to the U.S. Army, where you got to travel with a gun and they made everybody help keep things clean. She'd never have only her own concerns to tote. She'd never have her own concerns.

This is an amazing story about a tough, brave girl in a very hard environment. Most of the men are doing criminal deeds in the back woods, most girls wind up married on account of pregnancy, like Ree's best friend Gail, and as trapped as the men with no way out.

He said, "You think you get it, but you don't. I mean, you oughta try it your own self sometime. Get drunk one night and wind up married to somebody you don't hardly know."

"I know her real good."

"Yes'm, girl, you oughta go'n get yourself good'n drunk one night and have you a kid. I mean it."

"No thanks. I already got two. Not countin' Mom."

Floyd's arc of piss slackened and slackened until he shook the last drops loose.

"Nobody here wants to be awful," he said. He hopped a little as he zipped up. "It's just nobody here knows all the rules yet, and that makes a rocky time."

Everyone in this book is already on that hard, bleak road: some, like Ree and her brothers, you think could still get off that road; others, like Ree's terrifying uncle Teardrop, whose face was melted by a meth explosion and who's usually high on crank, have just enough humanity left to make them Greek tragedies.

Ree sees her future looming before her, and the future of her brothers, and Woodrell doesn't give you any promises that they are going to be any different. He paints a harsh, vivid picture of stark woods, iron-faced women, trigger-happy men, blood-feuds, and honor killings, all in a place that could be America a hundred years ago except for the meth.

Ree's quest to save her house by finding out what happened to her father means crossing the extended, violent Dolly clan that doesn't like anybody asking questions, least of all girls. Even knowing what she is up against, Ree doesn't quit. She is going to make them give her what she needs or kill her, one or the other.

"You was warned. You was warned nice'n you wouldn't listen — why didn't you listen?"

"I can't listen. I can't just listen."

She moved her head slowly, wobbling as she aimed her good eye, and saw that there were others in the barn. Shapes milling by the open double door, wearing man hats, smoking, watching in silence. One of the man hats stepped near. Megan squatted, patted Ree's face, and said, "Whatever are we to do about you, baby girl? Huh?"

"Kill me, I guess."

"That idea has been said already. Got'ny other ones?"

"Help me. Ain't nobody said that idea yet, have they?"

I loved this book because the astringent prose is Faulkneresque, while the story, the characters, the real raw messy human hearts bleeding on the page, are superior in every way to what so many readers of less challenging fiction (i.e. YA) say they want but settle for from Magical Boyfriend books.

Winter's Bone

I actually saw the movie before I read the book, which means it was harder for me to judge the plot twists in the book when I already knew what was going to happen. I will say that the movie is fantastic, a real piece of art, and it's also one of the most faithful adaptations of a book I've seen. Scene for scene and line for line, almost everything in the movie is straight from the book.

“I said shut up once already, with my mouth.”

Brrr. Woodrell has a brilliant way of conveying in a few words that these are people with whom you do not fuck.

Comparisons between Winter's Bone and The Hunger Games (which, despite my snark, I did also like) are inevitable. Jennifer Lawrence starred in both movies, for one, and did quite a marvelous job in both roles. But the parallels between Ree Dolly and Katniss Everdeen are pretty obvious: two girls living in oppressive backwoods squalor, forced to hunt squirrels to feed their younger siblings, trying to take care of a family with a mother who's mentally checked out and a father who's gone... it's amazing more people don't accuse Suzanne Collins of ripping off Daniel Woodrell than Koushun Takami. The life-and-death struggles of the Dolly clan are every bit as bleak and violent as those of District 12, except, you know, real.

In terms of style and heart, though, Winter's Bone is much closer to True Grit, another favorite of mine. Ree is a little older and a lot more worldly than Maddie Ross, but Ree is more like Maddie, self-possessed and unswervable, than the passive pushed-and-prodded-into-action protagonist of The Hunger Games. Winter's Bone is a more grown-up tale than either of these other two books, though; it's got not just blood, but shit and piss and puke, not gratuitous but in all the places where human beings are messier than they can hope to be on film. It's ugly and beautiful and equally raw in both aspects, from the beatings Ree takes to the brief blink-and-you'll-miss-it lesbian subtext, to the ending, which, like the lesbian thread, is one of the few things elided in the movie. Violence and vengeance is like gravity; Ree might escape it, she might not, but not all those around her will.

My highest recommendation.