In the musical groups I belong to, we sometimes program pieces of music we refer to as “just for us,” meaning they’re slightly different from the majority of “audience pleasers” we usually offer. They have chords sprinkled throughout that make chills run down our spine, or fascinating rhythm combinations that send our hearts racing while we play. The composers have a unique way with harmony or mixed meter that the trained musician can appreciate on a deeper level than the casual listener. Similarly, at least for me, Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrells’s compact and rough edged novel, is a “writer’s book.” Like those composers I referred to, Woodrell has a superior, edgy, way with words and sentence structure that makes his work particularly compelling to someone studying the craft of writing.
Woodrell has been highly praised for his ability to write “taut and lyrical prose,” and this is certainly not an exaggeration. We’re introduced to Ree Dolly, the 16 year old protagonist of the novel, as she stands on her front stoop in the Ozark mountains on a cold winter morning, wearing a sleeveless yellow sundress and her Mamaw’s black overcoat. She “smelled the frosty wet in the looming clouds, thought of her shadowed kitchen and lean cupboard, looked to the scant woodpile, shuddered.” In this collection of sentence fragments, Woodrell lays bare the scenery, the mindset, and the emotional and financial situation of his character. The book abounds with perfectly crafted sentences and images like this, that do double or even triple duty in setting mood, defining character, and moving the action along. Woodrell also has a mighty flair for metaphor, describing an automotive junk yard as “trophies for bad luck from many eras spread crumpled downhill beyond sight,” and Ree’s shotgun as feeling “like an unspent lightning bolt in her hands.”
Ree’s story is one of fierce pride, determination, and loyalty. Attempting to locate her runaway, “crack burning” father – dead or alive – so that her family won’t lose their home in his defaulted bail, Ree endures everything from lewd remaks to a savage beating that nearly kills her body if not her soul. Yet she perseveres, set on preserving all that’s left of her family’s heritage for her addled mother and two small brothers. If she can’t manage to save their home and land, she knows that not only will she “never have only her own concerns to tote,” she will “never have her own concerns” at all.
Woodrell deploy’s Ree’s journey in less than 200 pages. In the hands of this masterful storyteller, the plot moves as swiftly as Ree’s combat booted feet through the familiar backroads and woodlands of her Ozark mountain home. Since I just completed a short novel in the NaNoWriMo contest, it was especially interesting to me to see how skillfully Woodrell told Ree’s story with such brevity.
All that being said, Winter’s Bone is not a novel I would ordinarily read for pleasure. It’s mean, dangerous, and brutal, and it made me angry more often than not. It was sometimes almost too painful to read, and I think that’s why I found myself focusing so intently on Woodrell’s method – the heart (and gut!) wrenching details of the story were more intense than I could handle.
If you’re looking for a entertaining novel with sympathetic characters you can identify with, Winter’s Bone is not your cup of tea. However, if a well crafted, fast-paced story with a fearless and hard edged young heroine who is willing to risk it all for her family sounds more your style, than this novel will not disappoint.