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Joan of Ozarks

By Carolyn See,
who may be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, August 4, 2006

WINTER'S BONE

By Daniel Woodrell

Little, Brown. 193 pp. $22.99

If you're going to read "Winter's Bone," it's best to plan on reading it twice -- once to get the feel of the thing and once to figure out who is who, who's got the power here and what opaque and arcane rules hold this world together.

The world in question is Southeastern hill country, the Ozarks, where the population has lived almost as long as there have been white folks on the continent. The men, lounging in their ramshackle houses or dilapidated double-wides, appear to be feckless, savage, foul-tempered layabouts. If their great-grandfathers made their livings distilling moonshine, they rouse themselves from time to time to cook up a batch of crank. Their contempt for the law is boundless; they treat their women roughly. Their codes of honor and silence and family are as complex (and difficult to negotiate) as a badly written city ordinance.

In the hands of a conventionally educated urban author, these characterizations would seem intolerably condescending and elitist, but Daniel Woodrell was born and raised in the Missouri Ozarks and still makes his home in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line. He's not taking cheap shots; he's reporting life as he sees it.

Ree Dolly, the heroine, is a tough little girl of 16 who lives across a creek from a flock of slack-jawed relatives up in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere. Her father, Jessup, one of the best crank cookers in the region, has been increasingly shifty and pasty-faced of late. And now he's run off, after uttering these words: "Start lookin' for me soon as you see my face. 'Til then, don't even wonder." He left as winter was coming on, no food in the cupboards, no money, not even any firewood for their potbellied stove, leaving Ree responsible for herself, two younger brothers and a mother, who's decided -- according to Ree -- to go crazy so that she won't have to face this impossibly hard life.

It could be worse. At least they've got the house that's been in the family for generations. But Jessup has already spent time in jail and is due to be tried again. He's put up the house as part of his court bond, and if he doesn't make an upcoming court date, the pitiful little family soon will be evicted. It's true that when the first people came here, they lived in caves, but Ree doesn't relish that possibility. She must find her errant dad or risk homelessness in the harsh Ozark winter.

That's the back story, the setup. The action plays out like an old-fashioned, hard-boiled novel. Ree, like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, plays the interlocutor, visiting one mysterious or vicious character after another, asking the same questions: Where is her father, and how can she get him back? Each time, she's warned off by various threats, lies or intimidation. She visits her Uncle Teardrop, who had almost half his face melted off in a methamphetamine explosion. She breaches the frightening compound owned by Thump Milton, who makes her sit on her haunches in a sleeting rain for an hour and then won't see her. And she drives to an actual village with streets to question her dad's old girlfriend.

She gets nowhere. The ones who talk don't know, and the ones who know don't talk. But, as Ree is fond of saying, her family name is Dolly, and the Dollys are the toughest clan around. Soon enough, she realizes her dad is dead, but she must be able to prove it or be thrust out into the snow with two small boys and her crazy mom.

Meanwhile, Ree teaches her brothers to shoot and gut squirrels. She washes her mother's hair. She scrounges money for groceries. She spends time with Gail, her best friend from before they dropped out of high school. (Gail's married now to a 19-year-old oaf and has a new baby.) And day after day, Ree struggles with all the inconvenience and humiliations of dire poverty.

"Winter's Bone" revolves around questions of grit, courage, authenticity, a willingness to face the pure physical unpleasantness of the way things are. "Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat," Woodrell writes. "Meat hung from trees across the creek." It's meat she needs, but it doesn't look like she'll get any. Her half-starving brothers have been crying for lack of meat, but she almost twists the ear off the one who wants to ask for some. When she teaches the boys to shoot, she insists they do their own gutting. When something terrible happens to her, she's reduced to little more than a slab of pounded meat. And by the end of the novel, she must prove herself by holding firm to some of the creepiest, most unpleasant meat of all. That's what her life comes down to.

You could ask some carping questions about all of this. If all the people in these hollers occupy themselves making drugs, how come the standard of living isn't higher? If her brothers have been crying for protein and getting nothing but mush, how come Ree hasn't been out and about, shooting squirrel all along? Most important, in a world full of ignorant, antisocial savages, how did Ree turn out to be some kind of rustic Joan of Arc? (You can't say it's because she's a woman, because women commit some of the most heinous crimes in this narrative.) And it certainly can't be how she was raised, because her grandmother beat her with a strop, her father was a philandering dope fiend and her mother is nuts. I think the author just wanted her to be that way, the way Raymond Chandler wanted his Philip Marlowe to be a knight in a world full of craven churls.

Still, there's a lot of density and interest here. The author is obsessed by the weirdness of incongruity: the way the little boys watch fancy English ways on public television while their own lives drown in squalor; the way Ree and Gail bicker over processed grated cheese in the general store; the way the most villainous mountain women can be felled not by gunshot but by that most subtle and feminine of weapons -- round after round of righteous gossip. I don't know if this is a book that the reader is supposed to like or not. Woodrell simply shows us a world, the raw meat of it. If we can't stomach his reality, it's our problem, not his.

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