Third Day Book Club – Winter’s Bone

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.

*For more impressions on Winter’s Bone, visit Paris Parfait, who is hosting this month’s gathering of The Third Day Book Club.

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17 thoughts on “Third Day Book Club – Winter’s Bone

  1. Your thorough description is one I would value reading if selecting a book from an on-line bookseller. You’d make a good reviewer. Based on your post, I can see it would not fit the bill for light reading after the busy-ness of a work day. Thanks, Becca.

  2. I agree with Star, excellent review. This sounds like something I might want to read, but probably would not want to own, since I doubt I’d want to read it more than once. I’m thinking this is one to look for at the library.

  3. Fantastic review, Becca! I like the way you’ve interwoven the musical reference to the craft of writing. Excellent synopsis of Winter’s Bone. I agree about so many perfectly-crafted sentences, although some I found distracting (language that would not ordinarily be used, even in the Ozarks). And yes, certainly Ree’s story is at times almost too painful to read.

    Thanks for participating in Third Day! Hope you’ll do so again next month. Vote for the selection at Patry’s site Simply Wait.

  4. Having just struggled through posting my own review, I must congratulate you on such a concise and insightful review! (and congratulations on completing NaNoWriMo, as well!)

    There were many parts of this book that were difficult to read – and had I not committed myself to participating in the Third Day Book Club, I doubt I would have attempted it. Though, I must say, in the end I was glad I did.

  5. I like your review. Like you, I found the writing to be admired, but maybe calling too much attention to itself. To use your music analogy, the soprano putting a lot of extra trills and flourishes in the music, just to show off her voice, admirable though it is.

  6. Wow, Becca! You are a great reviewer. I do want to read this but not right now! When the world and life becomes easier ….. well, one can hope!!

  7. This is an excellent review, Becca!
    I like how you used the music analogy to begin your description of “Winter’s Bone.”

    I do believe that I will be getting this book. This sounds like a cup of tea I would savor 😉

    Have a Wonderful day!

  8. I enjoyed this book particularly for the look inside a non-mainstream lifestyle, but one in which immediate family bonds transcended the differences. For me the language – unusual phrasing and descriptive and lyrical prose – helped to weave a sense of a being in a different place entirely and transport me there.

  9. Thank you for the review, Becca. Taut writing is not my specialty, but it is a goal to be able to create the kinds of images you excerpted with powerful, spare prose. I believe I could learn much from Daniel Woodrell. The topic and events of the book, as you told them, did not scare me off. I’m not looking for an easy read, but an all-engrossing one, and Winter’s Bone seems to fit that bill.

  10. Hi, Becca! Thanks for taking a look around Alix’s Attic and for welcoming me to blogging. Sombra led me to your blog today, and I’m glad to see you paid a visit to me as well. I’ll definitely be dropping by the Byline often!

  11. So happy you joined Third Day this month. If not, we would have missed this marvelous review.

    Like you, I looked at this novel as a writer, and wondered at the rich plot he was able to fit into such a slender book. Hope you’ll hop over and vote for next month’s book. Right now it looks like we might have a tie!

  12. Hi Becca, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ozarks Here’s the link to the wikipedia’s description of Ozark Mountains. If you scroll down some it talks about the culture and the Scots-Irish influence.

    I think another aspect of the mountain culture the book describes is one of a people who don’t tend to take to 9-5 jobs, getting paid to do someone else’s work. They are used to sustaining themselves and doing the work of life, growing and making what they need. So it’s not surprising in that sense that in this day and age as impoverished as they are by mainstream standards that the resort to making drugs.

    I’m predominately of Irish descent.

  13. Excellent description and review, Becca. I too found this novel difficult to read as we (the readers) are bound to Ree’s journey. As a writer, this novel is a delight though … his use of language and metaphor, as you indicated, is brilliant. Thank you for your insight … look forward to seeing which novel wins the vote for next Third Day! Much peace, JP

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