- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006

WINTER’S BONE: A NOVEL

By Daniel Woodrell

Little, Brown, $22.99, 193 pages

Daniel Woodrell has quietly built a career that should be the envy of most American novelists today. “Woe to Live On,” his second book, was turned into a movie by the director Ang Lee. Mr. Woodrell’s last five novels (most recently “The Death of Sweet Mister” and “Tomato Red”) were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Critics have compared him to Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner.

O’Connor and Faulkner were, of course, Southern writers; Mr. Woodrell’s milieu is the Missouri Ozarks, a Midwestern hinterland tucked between St. Louis and Memphis. In relentless and lyrical prose, Mr. Woodrell’s novels dramatize this region where drugs are rampant, law enforcement is reputedly scarce and families can trace their descendants back to the European immigrants who first settled the area. The author was born in the Ozarks and now lives there with his wife, the novelist Katie Estill.

In “Winter’s Bone,” Mr. Woodrell’s eighth novel, he tells the story of Ree Dolly, whom he introduces on the first page: “Ree, brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellow dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again. She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs.”

The needs she attends to belong to her two younger brothers, Sonny, 10, and Harold, nine. The brothers move “in a spooky, instinctive tandem, like scampering quotation marks.” Ree’s mother is omnipresent but mentally ill, “medicated and lost to the present.” Ree’s father, Jessup, “a broken-faced, furtive man,” is one of the best crank chefs in the region — that is, a manufacturer of the drug crystal meth. A reliable father he is not. Ree has no choice but to become a surrogate parent.

As soon as she is of age, however, she plans to join the army and escape the Ozarks. There is a hint of the autobiographical here: Mr. Woodrell was 17 when he dropped out of school and joined the Marines. (He was eventually discharged, he said in an interview with a London newspaper, the Independent, because of a incident involving drugs.)

Ree’s dream is jeopardized, however, when her father speeds off in his blue Capri and disappears. Recently arrested, he had used their house to cover his bond. So Ree, her brothers and her mother stand to end up homeless (“to live in the fields … like dogs”) if Jessup fails to show up for an impending court date.

Ree, ever brave, sets off on an epic quest to find her father. What follows is a violent yet touching story of a teenager fighting to make good in a world where the possibilities seem hopelessly limited. She earns compassion but never wallows in self-pity. Hers is a haunting and timeless tale of growing up hard.

Through it all, Ree retains hope — as illustrated by her concern for her brothers. She tries to show them how to make deer stew, so “then you both’ll know.” When danger lurks, she teaches them how to fire a double-barreled 20-gauge shotgun, setting up cans, milk cartons and boxes as targets. She reminds them to wear their stocking hats when they leave for school, lest they catch cold. Writes Mr. Woodrell, “Ree’s grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean.”

Examples of what they could become loom everywhere. Uncle Teardrop, like Ree’s father, is a crank chef. His meth lab once exploded, and he lost his left ear. “You got to be ready to die every day — then you got a chance,” is his credo. Blond Milton is not above teaching his grandson, Sonny, a lesson by hitting him in the face and drawing blood. (Many of the Dolly men over the generations were given the name Milton, to help confuse police officers intent on bringing them to justice.)

Mr. Woodrell captures the Ozark idiom in his dialogue. “You know, there’s people goin’ ‘round sayin’ you best shut up,” says Blond Milton, when Ree starts to investigate her father’s disappearance.

The author’s lyrical prose, meanwhile, elevates the story into an ethereal realm, even as the most brutal scenes unfold. Ree endures a debilitating beating as she searches for her father:

“And the world flushed upside down in her eyes while her ears rang and she staggered, then the world flushed again and again and she stumbled across the gravel. One of Mrs. Thump’s rollers had jerked loose and dangled springy around her head as she pulled her big hand back to whack Ree another in the face.”

Gradually, Ree begins to realize that she will never again see her father alive: “At a bridge across a frozen creek she paused to stare down. She tried to see past the pocked skin of ice to the depths of flowing water. She was strangely still and staring on the bridge until she understood that her eyes searched for a body beneath that ice, and she crouched to her knees and cried, cried until tears ran down her chest.”

Mr. Woodrell ends his novel with a touching ode to family. Ree’s bond with her brothers transcends all else. They are her salvation.

Mr. Woodrell has earned a small but faithful following over the years, which may suit him just fine: Tucked away in the Ozarks, he has no interest in becoming a celebrity. But his work deserves mainstream recognition. “Winter’s Bone” may be the book that finally delivers it.

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