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Book Review: Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

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Sixteen year old Ree Dolly has got one of the hardest lives I’ve ever heard of. She lives in the Ozarks, a backward part of Missouri that’s more like a Third World country. I grew up in a small Oklahoma town, so a lot of what author Daniel Woodrell writes about is stuff I’m familiar with. Oklahoma has a definite meth problem as well, and a lot of the people I grew up with in the small towns where I lived were just as backward and suspicious of strangers as the characters are in this book.

In addition to a father who cooks meth and regularly stays in trouble with the law, Ree has two younger brothers and a mother that can’t take care of herself. The only thing holding this family together is Ree, and she’s about to risk everything she’s got to save them in a world that doesn’t seem to care if they live or die.

I got sucked in by the genuine desperation that Woodrell slams onto the pages. All Ree wants to do is get old enough to sign up with the Army, her one sure ticket to get out of the Ozarks and the madness that is killing the rest of her family.

Instead, after her father Jessup doesn’t show up for his court date and she learns that he put their house and their little patch of land up for collateral for his bond, Ree has to go hunting for him. If he doesn’t show up for court, her family is going to be kicked out into the dirt roads. Ree can’t let that happen.

The author says he writes “country noir,” and reviewers have even tagged his eight books as “hillbilly noir.” Winter’s Bone is a crime novel, and even borrows Raymond Chandler’s whole conceit of “down these mean streets a man must go…” Ree isn’t a bad person, but she knows a slew of bad people and has to make her way through them while trying to find her father.

Woodrell doesn’t make it easy for Ree. I went from intrigued at the beginning of the book to plain horrified by the time I was finished. Ree’s story is harder than any private eye yarn I’ve ever read. And her stakes in the matter were higher than any hired shamus looking for a wayward wife or murderer.

It’ll probably be a while before I can drag myself through another Woodrell novel, but that’s only because I can only stand so much despair and abuse heaped on a hero or heroine. The author has written seven other novels, and I’m going to read them all, but I’m going to sandwich them between some sweetness and light and inane because the truth Woodrell writes about is dark and disturbing and true.

The book has already been made into a movie that won the Sundance Festival. I’m going to watch it, and I’m probably going to hurt all over again. But I want to see this girl’s story in action.

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