Winter’s Bone

I don’t generally read crime fiction, but I was happy that I made an exception for Daniel Woodrell’s very fine novel Winter’s Bone.

Woodrell writes what he calls “country noir,” which is a category he created for himself because he didn’t want to be known as a mystery writer. Crime is not something exclusive to urban settings, and for the characters in Winter’s Bone, it is a way of life and death.

The story deals with the protagonist’s search for her father, who has missed a court date and used the family home and land as bond collateral. If she cannot find him — or prove that he is dead — her family will be homeless in an unforgiving patch of the world. Her father cooks crank, and in his community he is highly esteemed for this skill. Crank, of course, is methamphetamine, which is a scourge in urban and rural America. But for the people of Woodrell’s novel, it is merely a way to survive.

If the storyline is grim, the writing is like a punch to the stomach. Here is a description of the protagonist: “Ree, brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellowed dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again.” The descriptive metaphor does not let up in this novel, and all of it is harsh. I thought that after a while it became a little too strong, but it was always vivid. And if the plot was a little thin, the characterizations rang true. Woodrell writes like an insider, and he presents a part of America most readers have no knowledge of.

I thought the resolution came about through an unlikely means: the vicious antagonists didn’t like all of the bad talk about them in the community so give Ree the information she needs to resolve her problem. But the ties of family and community, as well as the codes and obligations that come with them both support and strangle the people in this novel.

I will certainly read other works by Daniel Woodrell.

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