Winter's BoneWinter’s Bone
by Daniel Woodrell

Winter’s Bone is a quick read with an unexpected staying power for such a short book. It’s about an Ozark girl stubbornly trying to track down her missing dad. He pledged the family house as bond after an arrest on drug dealing charges, and then vanished before his court date, leaving the family in danger of eviction.

The blurb on the dust jacket compared the heroine of this novel to Mattie Ross in True Grit, and I can see the resemblance. I’m also reminded of Mary Call in Where the Lilies Bloom. Like them, Ree Dolly is a teenage girl of tough fiber and independent mind, forced by circumstances to become the head of her family. Her ne’er-do-well dad isn’t around much, and isn’t a person to be relied on when he is. Her mother’s mind is crumbling into dementia. Ree is determined to bring up her two little brothers with hope of a better life than the ones they see all around them. No matter how tough things get financially, she’d rather see her family live homeless in a cave in the hills than accept the offers of relatives to take over raising the boys. She knows how the boys would turn out in such hands as theirs. She makes it her responsibility to bring these boys up to be something different from all their male relatives, to protect them so that they are “not dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean.”

The book is gritty reading at times. Ree’s relatives are all in the illegal drug business; casual violence is simply a hazard of the trade to their way of thinking. Ree’s persistent questions about her dad’s whereabouts make her not just an inconvenience but an outright danger to the rest of the clan. The folk among whom she moves have the unpredictability of wild animals who may or may not decide to attack. As Ree gradually realizes that her dad is dead, and that she may end up the same way if she doesn’t let the matter rest, she still refuses to shut up and go away without an answer. Threats, then a savage beating, fail to discourage her. Grudging respect for her courageous stubbornness finally gets her what she needs, the gruesome evidence of her father’s death, just enough evidence to avoid forfeiture of the house, with the understanding that no further questions are ever to be asked about how he died or who killed him. Unlike Mattie Ross, Ree Dolly isn’t after justice for her murdered father. Her aim was simply to preserve the home, the safe haven where she can preserve her family.

In the midst of all the violence and criminality, which would normally have put me off from a book, there is a heart of sturdy faith and integrity. Ree knows who she is, and whatever dreadful things happen to her, she walks a straight path as best she can. I was moved by the strength of her friendship with her old schoolfriend Gail, who has been trapped into a shotgun marriage and a baby while still in her teens. The two young women hold onto each other, reminding each other not to settle for apathetic acceptance of life’s dregs. Without Gail’s help, Ree’s quest might have met a dead end, as might Ree herself. Without Ree’s insistence that Gail get off her duff and give that help, Gail might have stayed in a wallow of discouragement.

Ree’s refusal to blame her shiftless father or her helpless mother for the family’s predicament was also one of the things I liked about the book. A bitter angry character is too common in novels, as is an unthinkingly blind character. Ree is neither of these cliches. She is an intelligently aware person who sees the weaknesses of the people she loves clearly enough to know how far they are to be trusted. Yet she goes on loving anyway, with a compassion for other’s faults as she struggles with her own. The scene where she tenderly washes her mother’s hair and talks with her about old memories is one scene that struck me deeply and stayed with me vividly, as was also true of the scene where she cleans out the house before the expected eviction, burning old family photos and souvenirs with dry eyes and no regrets.

Besides the richness of human compassion, the other thing that drew me unexpectedly past the book’s grittiness was the poetically beautiful writing. The breathtaking gorgeousness of winter woods and stark mountains, the welcoming warmth of evening light in the family kitchen,  the bone-chilling shivers of a skidding drive on icy roads, all broke out of the pages so minutely accurate in detail that I could see, hear, and feel the settings, bringing the wonder of travelling to imagined places. Ree’s own hunger for the richness of imagined places is satisfied through a sort of wordless poetry, her audio tapes of nature soundscapes. Sitting in a silent piney woods with crackling cold snow around her, she closes her eyes and listens to the sounds of ocean surf or tropical jungle birds. It’s a reminder that imagination can take us a long way from home, as this book itself does.