Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 02 Jul 2017

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

My God. If you think that Cormac McCarthy is a brutally hard read and his world is a vision of bleak nihilism, try Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Set in cold, bleak poverty-stricken communities of the Ozark mountains, this is the story of Ree Dolly and her fight to save the shack which is only thing the family has to call home.

Ree is pretty much the only beacon of light in this book and her vitality and determination illuminate the violent and grim underbelly of the world she lives in. Although only a teenager herself, it has fallen to Ree to care for her younger siblings and a mother made helpless by mental ill-health and, as if her task isn’t hard enough, she discovers her drug-dealing father has put the family’s home up as surety on a bail-bond. Unless she can get him to return, or prove that he’s dead, the shack will be lost and the family homeless – something Ree is determined won’t happen.

So begins a classic novel of questing centred on the search for the fate of the father . The communities of the Ozarks are feudal and tribal and meet reason with violence whenever there’s half a chance. Blood feuds are never forgotten and family revenge is always top of the agenda. This is a world that has been shaped by hardness and unremitting poverty and Woodrell spares nothing in showing us how this environment bends people out of shape.

The book is written with the sort of sparseness that reflects the harsh winter landscape and there’s a definite poetry in the way each word feels as if it’s been carefully examined before its deployed.

So, in a world so stark and hostile, what keeps people going? What makes this a life rather than an existence? The clue lies in Ree’s relationship with her friend  Gail, who she calls ‘Sweet Pea’. Here is where we see real human warmth and fellow-feeling, the tenderness they are capable of together belies the animal brutality that otherwise seems to dominate this world.

Once you have adjusted to the shock of your entry into the world Woodrell has created, it’s possible to begin to enjoy the detail. There are some glorious albeit fearful, almost Biblical descriptions of the people who have made their homes in this place. We are introduced to Thump Milton, 'a fabled man, his face a monument of Ozark stone, with juts and angles and cold shaded parts the sun never touched' and women who have  'a domineering reek of udder balm and brown gravy, straw and wet feathers'. Then there’s Uncle Teardrop, a man with four blue teardrop ink-stains on the deformed side of his face.

I shudder just writing this stuff down let alone contemplating  the prospect of meeting them.

Ree’s quest ends by way of two disembodied hands in a burlap sack being hurled onto the porch of their shack. If that sounds a bit puzzling and macabre, well it is and you’ll need to read the book to find out just how this resolves itself. You wont be surprised to discover that there aren't any comfortable resolutions here - small victories still mean that everyone is trapped in their bleak lives and bleak futures. I think that this book is best read when you're in a bold and resolute frame of mind and then you'll find it's a rewarding read rather than an oppressive one.

Terry Potter

July 2017