Daniel Woodrell was one of the writers to feature in John Williams Back to the Badlands . Williams describes Winter’s Bone as “…a wonderful book, as beautiful and harsh and as indelibly of its people as an Appalachian folk song.” This is a pretty good description of the book. There is a lyrical quality to the writing that has it hovering somewhere above stark reality but very much reflecting it. It seems to be done so easily that you know it must have taken a lot of hard work and a lot of skill to achieve something this good.
In Winter’s Bone, sixteen year-old Ree finds that her father, who left her to care for her two younger brothers and her mother, has put up the house for bail, and they will lose it if he doesn’t show up for court. Ree’s search for him takes her through the valleys and creeks of the Ozarks, to friends and enemies, most of them related in some way or another. These people seem to exist on the edge of society, outside the law, but with their own code.
The story is rooted in the people and places, and seems timeless. There is a looming, gray presence of winter – “The sky came into the valley low, glum and blustery, about to bust open and snow.” Ree is a Dolly, of the clan that inhabits these places:
There were two hundred Dollys, plus Lockrums, Boshells, Tankerslys, and Langans, who were basically Dollys by marriage, living within thirty miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful to kin in a pinch. The rough Dollys were plenty peppery and hard-boiled toward one another, but were unleashed hell on enemies, scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own.
Ree’s father, Jessup, is rough Dolly, a crank chef, which seems to have taken over from moonshine as the illegal drug of choice, and he has messed up. She tries to find him through Uncle Teardrop – “He was a nightmare to look at but he’d torn through a fistful of appealing wives. – and then through Thump Milton – “a fabled man, his face a monument of Ozark stone, with juts and angles and cold shaded parts the sun never touched.” She finds violence and pain, but perseveres. The outcome is as bleak as the life being led in this isolated culture, but does suggest some light at the end of Ree’s tunnel.
To follow up on Winter’s Bone, I tried The Ones You Do, that was written in 1992, and was not disappointed. The writing reminded me of George V Higgins and Elmore Leonard in the way that the dialogue tells the story of John X Shade and his family. John X and his young daughter have to leave town quickly after her mother absconds with Lunch Pumphrey’s money. They head for St Bruno, where John X’s sons from a previous marriage all live. Lunch follows. Lunch is not a pleasant fellow. As he tells a cuckolded husband “..when you get aged and rackety and think back across your entire life span, why, it ain’t the ones you do you regret, it’s the ones you don’t.” John X has a similar sort of view, but not as nasty, and pretty much knows what has to happen. The story is not complex, but the quality of the writing makes it a joy to read. I’m now going to track down all of Daniel Woodrell’s other books.
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, published by Sceptre (2006), ISBN (hardback): 0 340 89797 x
The Ones You Do by Daniel Woodrell, published by No Exit Press (1994), ISBN: 1-84243-049-1
Other books by Daniel Woodrell – Under the Bright Lights, Woe to Live On (aka Ride With the Devil), Muscle for the Wing, Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir, Tomato Red, The Death of Sweet Mister