The plot of Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell conforms to conventional thriller stakes. Ree, our protagonist, looks after her mentally incapacitated mother and two young brothers since her father left them with an unfulfilled promise of returning. Instead, the bail bondsman turns up with an ultimatum: find your father and get him to his upcoming court date or lose the house. Ree is tough as nails, plucky, and resourceful, but losing the house, she thinks, just might doom them all. The search is on.
The meth-making Missouri Ozark setting of the novel turns this unremarkable set-up into a story worth reading. Woodrell deftly depicts the subtleties of the region’s harsh and fickle winter weather. Against this greyscale landscape, the characters and well-paced action erupt, constantly intriguing and colorful as hell because Ree’s world operates with unusual cultural norms and values. Names matter. Family matters. Families, even at their most extended, look after one another. Strength and stoic pride are prerequisites for respect. And the men, of course, hold all the power: cooking crank, aiming guns, defending themselves, their kin, and their sense of honor. If violence and poverty were part of the culture before meth, Winter’s Bone suggests the drug industry has only exacerbated them.
Ree is our perfect guide. She knows who to talk to, and when to keep her mouth shut. She’s a fighter in all the appropriate ways. She wears a dress paired with heavy winter boots and her grandmother’s old coat, at once feminine and eminently practical. But she also sees her culture’s flaws: she won’t touch crank, teaches her brothers to eschew violence as much as possible, and hopes to get out by joining the army. Men, their violence and their sense of honor, might drive this society, but Ree is savvy. The great delight of the novel is that so are all the other women we meet and it’s the women who propel the novel’s action. Uncle Teardrop’s wife knows all the ways to bring him down from a meth high; Gail’s loyalty to Ree is unwavering even when her husband objects; the wives of important men can be just as prickly as the men themselves, but ultimately answer Ree’s requests for help.
The novel effectively allows the reader to experience how complicated and brutal Ree’s world is without making any sort of moral judgement. Though this is ordinarily a virtue, in this case it gives me pause: I needed to remind myself that the novel set in the present, not a 100 years ago, that it takes place only a couple of hours away from my comfortable suburban childhood in St. Louis. Critically acclaimed and well-reviewed in the New York Times, Woodrell’s novel found success with an audience of urban and suburban readers like me. Ultimately, I worry that Winter’s Bone is too foreign and too delightfully easy to read to build any true awareness or empathy for the real people, places, and very real problems it represents.
Up next: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Why? It’s long past time I read this influential anti-colonialist novel.