I’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.
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This 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 
Length 193 Pages
Book Series standalone
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