Review: WINTER’S BONE by Daniel Woodrell

Winter's Bone - Woodrell, Dani8797fI’ve seen Daniel Woodrell’s writing variously categorised as country noir, hillbilly noir and – my personal favourite – hick lit but I’m not sure any of these labels give an accurate picture of the sensibility a new reader might expect to encounter. For me it is – at least by the example of WINTER’S BONE – closer to something like misery lit without the redemptive ending.

That probably sounds harsher than I mean it to. Or maybe I do mean to be that harsh. I’m honestly not sure.

My difficulties stem in part from the book’s almost universal acclaim which set such high expectations. As I read I could not help but look for, and fail to find, the brilliant book I had been promised.

That’s not to say the book is bad.

Its heroine – a 16 year old called Ree Dolly – is a heartbreaker. The oldest child of a crank chef she has not a single one of the modern world’s advantages despite living in the globe’s ninth richest country. The book’s central dramatic premise is that Ree’s father has gone on the run after putting up the family’s meagre property as collateral for his bail. His failure to appear for his next court date will result in the loss of the house that Ree lives in with her drug-addled mother and two younger brothers whose care she is entirely responsible for. Ree’s desperation to save the home is only partly in pursuit of a roof over the family’s heads. She also believes that if she fails she will never be able to join the Army: the only escape available to someone in her circumstances. So she looks for her father in spite of the physical barriers (just getting around the remote and inhospitable location) and very real dangers posed by breaching the unwritten but well understood rules of engagement within the extended family community in which she lives.

The writing is evocative and for the most part gloriously sparse. This description of Ree setting off on the first step of her quest says in five sentences what other writers would take five pages to convey

She broke her own trail through the snow and booted the miles from her path. The morning sky was grey and crouching, the wind had snap and drew water to her eyes. She wore a green hooded sweatshirt and Mamaw’s black coat. Ree nearly always wore a dress or skirt, but with combat boots, and the skirt this day was a bluish plaid. Her knees kicked forward of the plaid when she threw her long legs forward and stomped the snow.

Woodrell also makes extensive use of a dialect that is at times as foreign to me as Swedish but somehow manages to be comprehensible as a whole while helping provide the sense of otherness the book drips with.

For this is not a world I know. The Missouri depicted here is physically and emotionally harsh. These Ozark mountains are not those of tourism brochures or cultural reclamation festivals and the people who populate the area have little room in their lives for the human courtesies I have taken for granted my entire life. Their choices aren’t so much limited as non existent – make drugs, take drugs or both. Insanity – Ree’s mother’s path – seems a sensible option. I have no trouble believing that the lives depicted here are entirely credible but I have no real understanding of how a person living anything vaguely similar in the real world would find the motivation to wake up each day.

And perhaps I should be happy with this. A great character, good writing and a glimpse into a world I can be profoundly grateful to never have encountered.

But, ornery creature that I am, it feels like there is something missing. It’s hard to put into words but the best I can come up with is that there is no change of tone in this novel. It starts out bleak and ends that way, with never any hint that things will be another way. I’ve always thought that what makes truly great noir is its offering of a glimmer of hope that things might not turn out badly this one time. Kind of like buying a lotto ticket: your head knows you’ve an infinitesimally small chance of winning but your imagination is temporarily sparked by the fleeting possibilities. WINTER’S BONE doesn’t offer that.

My conclusion then? That the novel is less than the sum of its parts. When considered independently each element of WINTER’S BONE is close to brilliant but as a whole it left me wanting something…just a little something…more.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the sixth book I’ve read that I’m including in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge for which I’ll read books set in each of the USA (and one for the District of Columbia). My personal twist is that all the books are by new (to me) authors.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Back Bay Books [2006]
ISBN 9780316066419
Length 193 Pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

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18 Responses to Review: WINTER’S BONE by Daniel Woodrell

  1. I’d never heard the phrase hick lit before! I’ve not read the book but I have seen the movie and it sounds like a pretty faithful adaptation. I found that I admired the movie rather than really enjoying it.

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    • I hadn’t heard hick lit either – it really did make me smile. I had actually intended to watch the film following the book and do one of my book vs adaptation posts but I decided I couldn’t dive into the bleakness again. Maybe in a year or two

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I know just what you mean, Bernadette, about that glimmer of hope. As you say, you do see that in the finest noir. If it’s missing, the book really is somehow a bit less. I’m glad you thought there were some great things about this novel (I agree with you, for instance, about the writing style), but it’s interesting how they don’t always add up to a shimmering success. Excellent review as ever.

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  3. Patti Abbott says:

    Yes, admire rather than enjoy. I can see that. Although I thought it a brilliant book it was one I was eager to be rid of. It clings to one like despair.

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    • I was wondering whether or not to recommend this book to a friend who had asked about it. I figure it would be like saying “yes you too should be mired in abject despair for a few days…then at least a few more days of shame as you realise whatever problems you have in your life aren’t really problems when compared to lives like these”. I will tell her I admired the book and she can decide for herself whether or not to read it

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  4. realthog says:

    I too had difficulties with the book, not because of the bleakness — I quite like bleakness — but because of the writing style. On the other hand, I adored the movie.

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    • I will watch the movie one day…but not just yet…I need a few unicorns and rainbows or something to shake me out of despair 🙂

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      • realthog says:

        I’m so sorry to hear you’re in the arms of despair, Bernadette. I wish I could help.

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        • It’s actually a combination of despair (the book really is very good in the way it places the reader inside its world) and middle class shame that my own most pressing problem right now is how to find a reputable tradesperson to fix a dodgy job at my house. I’ll get over both I imagine…though I will admit that last night I crrawled into bed and watched episodes of The Thick of It (one of my favourite ever comedies) to start counteracting the whole despair thing.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. tracybham says:

    I have only one of Woodrell’s books (Tomato Red) and I have put off reading it because I am afraid it will be too bleak. Maybe in 2016.

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  6. Matt Paust says:

    I, too, need to be in the right mood to read something like this–in fact almost any noir, even Flannery O’Connor. I did enjoy the last half of the movie, and Jennifer Lawrence was mesmerizing. I don’t see many movies, and that was the only one only one I’ve seen her in, but her talent shone through like a beacon in the fog. I didn’t realize the movie was based on this book, the writing of which evidently is exemplary. Something like this alone would sell the book to me: “The morning sky was grey and crouching…” Thanks for this insightful review.

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    • You’re welcome Matt and I will watch the movie one day.

      I loved that “grey and crouching” description too – makes it so easy to imagine just what sort of a day it was

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  7. Very interesting. Last year I read Woodrell’s The Maid’s Version and I loved it, it was one of my top 10 books of the year. It wasn’t the most cheerful of reads, but perhaps not as grim as this one. I was entranced by the writing, the style and the world and characters he created. So I do intend to read this one, though, like you, unrelieved misery is not what I’m looking for in a book. A hint of kindness and a hint of redemption are my minimum requirements these days – in people and in life!

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  8. kathy d. says:

    I did not read the book, but saw the stunning movie. It is bleak, true. But it’s gives a slice of life in the U.S. with which I have no experience and know nothing about, An area where there is nothing but abject poverty where drug-dealing is the only way to survive, where human relations are torn apart, where brutality is common.
    So, it was an eye-opener to me about how people survive this type of life.
    And Jennifer Lawrence is stunning in the movie version. We viewers are rooting for her in her quest to find her father and to survive. She shows she is a survivor.
    That’s the part to appreciate. That in the midst of this dog-eat-dog world, she is a survivor.

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