1000 Books In 10 Years: Vol. 249: Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell

The poster for the film adaptation of "Winter's Bone".

The poster for the film adaptation of “Winter’s Bone”.

The cover of Winter’s Bone suggests that there is a profound “and haunting… lineage from [William] Faulkner to [Daniel] Woodrell” which “runs as deep and true as an Ozark stream”.  This is perhaps a bit optimistic (and in the author’s defense, he aligns himself more with James Agee and Flannery O’Connor than he does with Faulkner; the cover’s quote is likely just an attempt on the part of the publisher to sell more copies to literary snobs such as myself).  What does the Los Angeles Times Book Review even mean by saying a stream is “true”, and why are they calling it an ‘Ozark stream’ instead of an Ozarkian stream?  If you pick up a copy of the book, do yourself a favour and ignore the tag line the publishers likely paid the unnamed critic to write; Woodrell’s novel stands on its own and does not need to be boxed in by comparisons to other Southern writers.

 

 

Author Daniel Woodrell

Author Daniel Woodrell

The narrative within the novel (which was translated with great efficiency into a film version) is not that exciting.  It is like a Feminist-Southern-Gothic-Detective novel.  It is very much about how a young woman, Ree Dolly, navigates a violent, hyper-masculine world that has utterly failed her.  An absentee father who has spent his adult life in and out of prison is facing another jail term when he goes missing.  With the family home used as collateral for his bond, Ree faces losing the home when her father does not show up for court.  For me, the value of the novel is not in her investigation into her father’s disappearance, but in her interpersonal relationships and in the way in which she adopts characteristics assigned to both genders.  She is at once mother and father to her two younger brothers, and finds autonomy in her own self-sufficiency whilst looking to pass that same self-sufficiency on to her brothers.

 

 

 

Jennifer Lawrence, who starred as Ree in the film adaptation of the novel.

Jennifer Lawrence, who starred as Ree in the film adaptation of the novel.

Early in the novel we see Ree cooking for her brothers: a typical matriarchal role.  Their mother is overwhelmed by mental illness and though present physically, is absent mentally and emotively.  Ree steps into the role of mother and though she does pick up the responsibility, she does not cherish it.  When preparing dinner, she calls her younger brothers over and teaches them how to prepare a meal themselves so that they can be as self-sufficient as she.  Ree teaches them to embrace a role generally assigned to the feminine realm by patriarchal standards, but she then goes outside and teaches her brothers how to hunt and shoot: something typically aligned with the masculine realm.  Ree occupies both spaces: mother and father.  She teaches her brothers how to be able to occupy both spheres as well suggesting that it is not only in a woman’s best interests to be socially hermaphroditic, but also in the best interest of men to be so as well.  Being able to occupy both realms is the surest way to true autonomy.

 

 

Jennifer Lawrence got to hunt squirrels in 'Winter's Bone', which which helped prepare her for her role as Katniss in "The Hunger Games".

Jennifer Lawrence got to hunt squirrels in ‘Winter’s Bone’, which helped prepare her for the role of Katniss in “The Hunger Games”.

There is an interesting flashback scene where Ree and her friend Gail are intimate with each other.  Both are eager and curious to experience intimacy with a boy and practice kissing with each other.  Woodrell conflates men and women in the flashback, illustrating how women can adopt the roles assigned as masculine.  He writes: “The first time Ree kissed a man it was not a man, but Gail acting as a man, and as the kissing progressed and Gail acting as a man pushed her backwards onto a blanket of pine needles in shade and slipped her tongue deep into Ree’s mouth, Ree found herself sucking on the wiggling tongue of a man in her mind”.  He goes on: “Gail… acting like the man roughed up her breasts with grabs and pinches”.  The two girls trade roles and develop a taste for what they like and expect and when the experience finally befalls them, the boys they kiss are weaker and more passive than their fantasy men: “The first time Ree kissed a boy who was not a girl his lips were soft and timid on her, dry and unmoving, until finally she had to say it and did, ‘Tongue,honey, tongue,” and the boy she called honey turned away saying ‘Yuck!’”.  We see in this juxtaposition that the gender roles work out to be what Grace Tiffany refers to as ‘fictive role-playing’ performable by either gender’.

 

 

I'm just not sure what other images I can use for this article, so Jennifer Lawrence seems like the best option.

I’m just not sure what other images I can use for this article, so Jennifer Lawrence seems like the best option.

Such equality is easily identified in instances where physical strength is not required, but Woodrell challenges even these conceits.   When Ree goes too far in her investigation, she finds herself confronted by several women who beat her severely.  They do not allow a man to touch her.  Women take up this physical duty and Ree is told that she “took that beatin’ good as most men”.  Ree also demonstrates restraint not present in many of her male counterparts.  Crank is a popular drug in the community, but she refuses to use it and recognizes how such an addiction would dilute her self-sufficiency.  By the end of the novel she finds herself recruited by men on both sides of the law: a bondsman and her uncle.  Her choice is not made, but it is clear that Ree will not follow in the family business (crank) and may enlist with the army once her brothers are able to care for themselves.  When she comes into money at the end of the novel, her brothers ask what they are going to buy with it.  Ree answers: “Wheels.”  This is the last word of the novel, and though not poetic, it is fitting.  Ree is steadfastly concerned  with self-sufficiency, and without a means of transportation she finds herself dependent in several instances.  Having lost several teeth in a beat down, most might assume the first thing Ree would aim to do is fix her teeth, but she is more concerned with securing a larger degree of autonomy, rather than improving her physical appearance.

 

 

This is the last picture of Jennifer Lawrence I'm adding to this post.  I promise.

This is the last picture of Jennifer Lawrence I’m adding to this post. I promise.

The novel works as both an engaging and entertaining narrative, but also offers some interesting critical reading (thought the “Questions And Topics For Discussion” section at the end not only seems to be trying too hard to suggest the literary merit of the piece, but completely misses out on the most valuable aspects of the novel).  Aside from the feminist reading, there are also elements of the ecocritical approach and some obvious existentialist streams running throughout the work.  As far as contemporary fiction goes, Woodrell seems to write better than most.  Though I would not put the work on a par with Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, I would say it belongs in the discussion with them.

 

 

 

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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