“Winter’s Bone” is the rare book that, while effective, does not exceed the merit of the movie. The eponymous film, directed by Debra Granik, is a nearly perfect work of art, and I was wary going into the book because I did not expect the it to exceed the film. While I was partially right (Woodrell’s original is more emotionally remote and the film is a masterpiece in it’s own right) the novel is worthwhile and lyrically written, while not being inaccessible.
17-year-old Ree Dolly (rendered less admirable and rougher-hewn in the book) lives in the Ozarks, surrounded by a cloistered community of violent and thuggish crystal meth cooks. Nearly everybody is related to everyone else somehow, and the mountain people defend their own kind against the cops- unless one of their own crosses the line. That’s what Ree’s dad Jessup did, and he’s missing. Worse yet, Jessup put bail bond on the house before he disappeared, and Ree has to prove that he’s dead before she loses the family home.
Ree almost single-handedly takes care of her mother, who has long ago turned insane, and her little brothers Sonny and Harold. She’s trying her best to cope with difficult circumstances. Ree’s rough, but sometimes roughness comes with persistence, and this girl’s nothing if not persistent. She tries to get the true circumstances of Jessup’s death from the locals, but they don’t like questions much. Soon she finds herself fighting for her life, desperately sinking into a situation that is fast getting out of hand.
Ree is helped hesitantly by her enemy/lifeline Uncle Teardrop (played in the movie by the brilliant John Hawkes,) a crank cook whose criminal activities she wants no part in. Although this is not mentioned in the movie, I got a strong feeling from the book that Ree was gay. On one level, the fact that Ree rejects the thought of pairing up with a man may stem from her fierce independence and the fact that the majority of the local men are leering, toothless pieces of white trash. But considering her activities shared with her friend Gail in her childhood and in the present (swimming together in the buff, kissing,) I got a slightly different vibe from the story.
The writing presented here is quite beautiful. You would think for a book set in such a bleak place, the writing would be similar to the setting- harsh and ugly. But it’s lovely. Sure, “Winter’s Bone” doesn’t for a minute romanticize the hardness and coldness of the Ozarks community Ree is forced to grow up and survive in. But it finds the prettiness in something nasty and tough.
“Winter’s Bone” transports the suburban, middle-class reader into a setting unlike most of us will ever experience. It may not be pretty, but it’s rough and real and thrillingly brutal. Instead of mocking its characters, it’s presents them as matter-of-fact and as direct as a slap to the face. I have to say, I could not stop picturing Jennifer Lawrence as Ree, although the novel stated the book Ree was a brunette instead of a blonde. I guess Jennifer Lawrence is so good at what she does that any other face feels like an impostor.
My mom LOVED this book and read it twice in a row; my reaction was a little more ‘meh,’ although I did think it was very good and solid. I like how in both the book and movie you felt hope for Ree and the kids. For all it’s bleakness, for all it’s toughness, you don’t see dead ends. You see opportunities. And you hope (and believe) that Ree will snatch those opportunities, which, after all, do not come easy in a place like this.