I heard about this book for the first time when I saw a preview for the movie version – it looked cool as hell, and so I immediately put the book on hold at the library. A lot of other people must have had the same idea, because I remember having to wait several weeks to get my hands on a copy, but eventually I did. And then proceeded to devour the damn thing.
It’s a short book – 193 pages – and I was able to finish it in about a day. But this story is light reading only in a purely literal sense. I hate saying that a book packs a punch, because that’s a very overused phrase, so instead I’ll be more direct and say that this book straight out punches you in the face. Repeatedly. It makes you feel sad and hungry and scared and hurt and angry and cold. You want to get out, and take the protagonist with you.
Winter’s Bone takes place in the rural Missouri Ozarks, in a small area inhabited by a handful of closely-knit outlaw families. Before you start getting all misty-eyed, “outlaw” here doesn’t mean “steals from the rich, gives to the poor, accompanied by gangs of merry men.” “Outlaw” in this book means “cooks meth, skips bail, and murders people for talking to police.” Trapped in this world of violence and probably a hefty dose of inbreeding is 17-year-old Ree Dolly, who has become the sole provider for her two younger brothers since her mother went had a breakdown and her father disappeared. One day a cop shows up at the house and tells Ree that her father put the family’s cabin up for bail, and that if he doesn’t show up for court in a week they’ll lose the house. Ree knows she and her brothers need that house to survive, so she decides to find her father.
What follows is a harrowing odyssey as Ree seeks out various extended family members and tries to get someone to tell her what happened to her father. This is a family where asking questions gets you beaten up, and talking to the cops gets you killed. Obviously, no one’s willing to tell Ree anything about where her dad might be, and she begins to suspect that everyone knows something she doesn’t. But she keeps asking.
Now, when a normal person talks to a guy with burn scars from an exploding meth lab on his face, and is told to mind her own business, she damn well minds her own business. But lucky for the reader, Ree Dolly happens to be a total fucking badass, and the best part is that it’s completely genuine. Ree isn’t trying to prove anything to us or her family by being tough, unlike some literary heroines I could name. (I’m looking at you, Lisbeth.) Ree is tough because she has to be. She’s tough because where she comes from, there’s no other way.
The only time this book loses a star is in Woodrell’s narration, which can get a little ridiculous sometimes. Half the time he’s writing in the hill-folk dialect that the characters speak in (which really wasn’t so bad once you got the rhythm of it) and the rest of the time he’s working really, really hard to write things in a way that is New and Different and Innovative. Sometimes this works, and sometimes not so much, as seen in this hot mess of a sentence: “A picnic of words fell from Gail’s mouth to be gathered around and savored slowly.” I actually winced when I read that one. Calm it down there, Woodrell.
Verdict: four out of five stars
AND NOW A WORD ON THE MOVIE: Oh my god, guys, it’s so good. Depressing and bleak as hell, but so good. Jennifer Lawrence nails the character of Ree, of course, because Ree is basically a more realistic version of Katniss Everdeen, and everybody else in the movie is terrific as well.