A friend of mine was once a travelling Bible salesman in Florida. One day, out on the road, he came to a trailer with a pig’s-head-on-a-stick out front, and the man who lived there made him an offer. On a couch inside the trailer were three pregnant women. The man told my friend that he (the man) had impregnated these women in order to collect Social Security on his progeny. He said – if my friend wanted – he could get in on the deal. All my friend had to do was have sex, right there, with a woman he didn’t know, and nine months later the man in the trailer would mail him a cheque. This is the America where Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone takes place.
Ree Dolly lives in the Ozarks. Her father cooks methamphetamine. Her uncle has killed three guys. Ree’s momma is catatonic, so Ree looks after the house. A cop comes to tell Ree that her daddy has skipped bail, and that her house is up for bond. If Ree can’t find her daddy, she, and her family, will be “dogs in the fields”. You or I would probably try to phone our errant fathers, but apparently there are no telephones in the Ozarks. There’s also the Ozark omerta (or “code of silence”) which prevents anyone from divulging a missing person’s whereabouts. When Ree asks: “Have you seen my daddy?”…in these parts, it’s like asking to be killed. She asks because she’s desperate. She knows she’s at risk.
The other danger for Ree Dolly is that she’s sixteen and her author is a man. This means her clothing is likely to come off on a whim. Much as I respect Daniel Woodrell’s prose, there is something unsavoury about the number of times Ree strips. Short of writing “and then Ree began soaping herself provocatively”, Woodrell skates awfully close to taking a prurient interest in his heroine. “The first time Ree kissed a man it was not a man, but [a teenage girl]”. Yeah, uh huh, and I bet she wrote a letter about it to Hustler. Woodrell is just the kind of folksy pervert who thinks “actin’ natural” for girls is all about lesbianism and skinny dipping. There’s no narrative purpose in focusing on Ree’s “panties” after she’s sustained a vicious beating…that’s just nasty. Voyeurism characterises Woodrell’s writing of Ree, but she’s woman enough to handle his sweaty-palm digressions.
Ree can shoot, she can hunt, she can raise her brothers and she can sense tragedy. In her dead-eyed momma, Ree sees a personal warning. She’s introduced “face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again”. Fear is mute to her, and useless. In the brutal, unrelenting world in which she lives “you got to be ready to die every day”. It’s a wild existence. Traumatic events are normal. When Ree’s father was shot (by a friend) he drove thirty miles to show-off his wound at his favourite tavern. Then he went to hospital. Ree was raised to accept the worst. But she isn’t soured by this, or pessimistic. She just accepts it. Beatings occur like bad weather. Ree doesn’t scurry from the rain.
Her uncle is named Teardrop. He keeps a gun beside his front door. Teardrop’s ear has been melted off in a chemical accident. He has a scar on his neck like a fault line. He’s addicted to methamphetamine. In the hierarchy of the Hills, he’s someone who can hurt people, but not someone who can’t be hurt. When he agrees to help Ree, he does so knowing it could get him killed. The saddest moment in the book is the last time Ree sees Teardrop: “paled, paled everywhere but his scar.” He’s a waiting ghost; articulate the way a car wreck speaks of life that led up to it. All the violence of the Ozarks is snarled up in him. He can no more leave it than he can lift a truck.
Winter’s Bone isn’t a great novel, but it does have a great sense of character, and place. For all the fussing over Ree’s “panties”, Daniel Woodrell knows her type. She, and women like her, allow the Ozarks to exist. They are not victims. In a society predicated on family, they are more like rope, where men are knots. The anger of the place is expressed through men, but the women are present in every house. Ree, at sixteen, is on the cusp of womanhood. She could leave the Ozarks for another life. But her brothers need her. Her uncle needs her. Her father needs her. She doesn’t have a man’s instinct to run. Instead, she guards her home.