2006. Little, Brown & Co. Hardcover. 193 pages.
I first read Winter’s Bone back in December 2006 and thought it was one of the best books I had read that year. After seeing and liking the recent film adaptation, I had a desire to re-read the book. The story, set in the Ozarks, is compelling: 16-year-old Ree Dolly must find out what has happened to her meth-cooking father, Jessup. After signing the family home and land over to make bail bond, Jessup has gone missing. Ree’s mother is mentally ill and Ree’s brothers are too young to fend for themselves, and so Ree is desperate to keep her family from being homeless. When the teenager starts stubbornly asking questions, however, she is visited by trouble.
Re-reading Winter’s Bone, I enjoyed the story and the spirit of Ree Dolly as much as ever. But now I was paying more attention to the skilled and atmospheric writing, and to some of the more understated plotlines and character relationships.
Even though the book is set in a real place – in the Ozarks – Woodrell made me feel that Ree’s world is not part of a greater entity, of the United States. Ree’s references to her clan’s past do not neatly attach themselves to reference points in American history. The origin story about how her ancestors came to this land, as recalled by Ree, is not marked by dates, or national ties, but is told more like a myth. It gave the setting a not-unpleasant disoriented feel.
And Ree herself, while certainly a character that a reader can root for and like, is also definitely a product of this remote rural community. Woodrell lets us into her head, and for every point of understanding her, I also encountered a pattern of thinking that was mysterious and different. Ree has long been in a survivalist mode, and so her reactions are not that of a ‘normal’ person facing a crisis, but of one who has already been kicked about by life. It makes her a very fresh character to my eyes, even on this second time experiencing her story.
Woodrell’s gorgeous, poetic writing accomplishes all this. And, to be clear, I don’t mean gorgeous as in merely pretty and decorative. And I don’t mean poetic as in lost in its own language. It’s a bracing, fearless writing style, suited to the cold wintry setting.
Thump Milton loomed over Ree, a fabled man, his face a monument of Ozark stone, with juts and angles and cold shaded parts the sun never touched. His spade beard was aged gray but his movements were young. He crouched, grabbed her chin, and turned her head from side to side, inspecting the damage. He was bigger than she’d thought, hands strong as stormwater rushing. His eyes went inside you to the depths without asking and helped themselves to anything they wanted.
He said, “You got somethin’ you need to say, child, you best say it now.”
On this re-read, the relationship between Ree and her best friend Gail seemed more at the forefront than I’d noticed before. The two were friends since childhood, a close intimate bond that had been recently shaken by Gail’s recent marriage and baby. Gail was knocked up by a boy while he was cheating on his steady girlfriend, and so at parental and societal behest, the two teenagers married.
In this time of crisis, however, Gail (with infant son in tow) is at Ree’s side and is an invaluable emotional ballast. It is clear, I think, that Ree loves Gail and it was interesting to read the nuances of this relationship as it completes its own arc in parallel to the main story arc.
The other fascinating relationship is between Ree and her Uncle Teardrop, her father’s intimidating brother. I think this aspect was played out wonderfully in the movie, and I came to my re-reading with actor John Hawkes’ portrayal of Teardrop in my mind. He’s the one almost father-figure available to Ree during the course of the story, and I liked how Woodrell develops their relationship.
I’m reluctant to bring this book back to the library today (it was due yesterday, oops). Writing this review almost makes me want to tear through it again, but in place of that, you all should go out and read it. It’s so short that you have no excuse. Then you can go watch the movie if you haven’t already.
What others had to say:
Bending Bookshelf – “Though Ree has incredible presence, I sometimes found myself distracted by the mystery element of the book. I don’t know that it would have made a significant difference in my enjoyment of the novel, but I wish that Woodrell had revealed earlier on what Ree’s father, Jessup, did to warrant disappearing.”
Bibliophile by the Sea – “Ree will probably be one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in a long while.”
Book Reviews of Elizabeth A. White – “Winter’s Bone is quite possibly the most ‘perfect’ novel I’ve ever experienced. And I do mean experienced, because Winter’s Bone is not something that one merely reads.”
Musings of a Bookish Kitty – “While Woodrell’s writing is descriptive, the actual dialogue and story somehow come across as raw and harsh. It has a noir quality to it.”