Book Review: Winter’s Bone by Darrell Woodrell–can you find a better heroine in all of literature?

I have a tendency to exaggerate, to think that whatever I have read, heard or seen lately and liked  is the BEST!  I am much more nuanced about things I dislike and usually soften the blows rather than exaggerate them.

But with Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone, I feel confident in stating what a truly fine book it is.

In fact, since I have read it, I have tried to think of a heroine in an American novel who matches Ree Dolly for grit, perseverance, wisdom and sheer moxie. These are the suggestions I have gotten so far:

1. Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (too spoiled, mercurial and self-centered)
2. Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (not really her story but her father’s–who, by the way, may be the best father in literature.)
3. Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter (interesting suggestion, but her props come from accepting her punishment and not revealing who the father of her child was, while letting the simpy Rev. Dimmesdale preach his sermons and fill himself with self-loathing. I don’t see her as a particularly active heroine.)
4. Katniss in Susan Collins The Hunger Games (must say, I don’t know enough about her, except that Jennifer Lawrence played both Katnis in the Hunger Games AND Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone.)
5. Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’ True Grit (Mattie is a good second to Ree Dolly. Her challenges just don’t seem as daunting as Ree’s.)

Please feel free to add your own selections.

But my point is, I can’t remember any heroine–or any protagonist for that matter–who is so admirable in her refusal to not back down, in her persistence in doing what she must, and in her bravery in standing up to the very nasty forces that surround her.

In case you don’t know, Winter’s Bone is the story of Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year old girl who is raising her two younger siblings and caring for her catatonic, demented mother. Her meth-cooking father has just skipped bail and he had put up their hovel of a home as bond.  If he doesn’t show up for court, Ree and her family are out on the streets–or more realistically out in the fields of this very hardscrabble Missouri Ozarks setting.

Suffice it to say that her father is dead. And people aren’t real happy about Ree poking into their business. This is a community whose main economy and main diversion is crystal meth-amphetamine, and there are a whole lot of very, very nasty people.  No one talks. Talking creates witnesses.

In the course of her journey, Ree gets a truly horrible beating, she allies herself with her rough Uncle Teardrop (named such because of the three tears self-tattooed on his face), and finally proves her father’s death by sawing off his two hands (with a chain-saw from where he is sunken in a murky lake) and bringing the “identification” back to the authorities.

If it sounds gruesome. It is. But it is also one of those books that hooks you immediately and which you wish would go on forever. And it is all because of the character of Ree.  It is Ree that rises above all the violence, the poverty, the bleakness. But while Ree completes her quest at the end, while a few things begin to go right for her and her family, one is left feeling that in another five or ten years Ree will have turned into one of the many harridans that populate this mountain.  I hope not.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

I read the novel for a film class I am teaching.  And so, I also had to show the film. As in all translations, there are various changes–her two brothers for some reason become a brother and a sister–and particular scenes are deleted.  Yet the film very much captures the spirit and the landscape of the novel.

Jennifer Lawrence is, at times, magnificent. There are moments when the camera captures the soft plumpness of her face adding even a greater vulnerability to this girl/woman who has to face such ordeals.  At other times, that softness works against her, straining our credibility that she is who she is supposed to be.

Not so with John Hawkes.  Hawkes, who was the soft-spoken hardware salesman in Deadwood–a similar world of extreme dirtiness and corruption, plays Teardrop perfectly. Hard as Ozark flint, creased and shaky, Hawkes captures the violence, the drug addled paranoia and stupor, and the family loyalty of these inbred mountain folk with studied truthfulness and credibility.  While Winter’s Bone is Lawrence’s movie, you don’t forget Hawkes for too long.

Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone.

John Hawkes as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone

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