A stoical Appalachian girl strives to rescue her family from her father's criminal legacy in Woodrell's bleak, mean, gripping eighth novel.
In Missouri's Rathlin Valley near the Arkansas border, "crank" cooker and dealer Jessup Dolly has jumped bail, leaving his 16-year-old daughter Ree to look after her younger brothers and their helpless Morn, once a spirited beauty, now a passive recluse sunk in the dreamy recesses of her "broken" mind. If Jessup doesn't return for trial, his family will be evicted, their land sold for timber, and they'll find shelter only among the hillside caves where generations of itinerant ancestors weathered their passage to settlement, led by their hardbitten patriarch Haslam. An Old Testament harshness and spareness indeed shadow this grim tale, as Ree seeks her father, dead or alive, aided by her childhood friend (and sometime lover), unhappily married Gail Langan. It's an odyssey rich with echoes of Inman's journey in Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, the homicidal poetry of Cormac McCarthy's tense narratives (with random bits and snatches of Elmore Leonard and Harry Crews), as Ree doggedly perseveres, querying her sullen and inscrutable Uncle Teardrop, her wrathful kinsman Thump Milton and his menacing passel of gun-toting cronies and combative womenfolk--considering the increasingly likely possibility that Jessup had "turned snitch" and met his fate at the hands of his former accomplices. The truth both endangers Ree's life and sets her free, in a coiled-spring narrative whose precisely honed prose vibrates with arresting descriptive phrases ("Houses above look caught on the scraggly hillsides like combs in a beard and apt to fall as suddenly") and unsparing doom-laden pronouncements ("Either he stole or he told. Those are the things they kill you for"). And the unforgettable Ree is a heroine like no other.
Every bit as good as Woodrell's icy The Death of Sweet Mister (2001)--in other words, about as good as it gets. Kirkus Reviews
In Give Us a Kiss (1996), Woodrell introduced the Redmonds, marijuana farmers from the Ozarks ("It's a strange, powerful bloodline poetry, I guess, but there's something so potent to us Redmonds about bustin' laws together, as a family"). Now he turns his attention to the Redmonds' archenemies, the Dollys, another family of dirt farmers who thrive on bustin' laws together (crank cocaine being their crop of choice). But this time the Dollys aren't feuding with the Redmonds as much as battling each other. Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly, who dreams of escaping her family by joining the army ("where you got to travel with a gun and they make everybody help keep things clean") is caught in the crossfire when her daddy jumps bail, leaving her stuck with two younger brothers and the prospect of forfeiting their house if the old man doesn't show up for his court date. To find Daddy, dead or alive, and save the house, Ree must ask questions of her notoriously tight-lipped relatives ("talkin' causes witnesses"). When she keeps pushing for answers, the relatives push back. Like his characters, and especially his teen characters, Woodrell's prose mixes tough and tender so thoroughly yet so delicately that we never taste even a hint of false bravado, on the one hand, or sentimentality, on the other. And Ree is one of those heroines whose courage and vulnerability are both irresistible and completely believable--think of not just Mattie Ross in True Grit but also Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird or even Eliza Naumann in Bee Season. One runs out of superlatives to describe Woodrell's fiction. We called his last novel, The Death of Sweet Mister (2001), "word perfect." If that's true--and it is--this one is word perfecter. Booklist Reviews.
Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly has a plan. She's going to join the army as soon as she can free herself from her complicated family obligations. Unfortunately, her father, part of a large extended Dolly family crystal meth enterprise, is missing. Her mother's mind is gone, and two little brothers worship at Ree's feet. Ree gets word that her father has skipped bail; if he doesn't meet his court date, the family loses its home, and there's nowhere to go. Ree begins a journey through the savage poverty of a brutally cold Ozarks winter to deliver her father before his court date. Woodrell's captivatingly resourceful protagonist both enchants and horrifies with her fierce determination to get to the truth of her father's disappearance and to protect her brothers. When she takes on the Dolly family's deep, cancerous control of the meth network, the eruption of violence nearly costs her everything. Woodrell's eighth novel (after The Death of Sweet Mister ) exposes the tragedy of crystal meth in rural America in all its brutal ugliness in language that is both razor sharp and grimly gorgeous. Highly recommended. Library Journal Reviews
Woodrell flirts with--but doesn't succumb to--cliché in his eighth novel, a luminescent portrait of the poor and desperate South that drafts 16-year-old Ree Dolly, blessed with "abrupt green eyes," as its unlikely heroine. Ree, too young to escape the Ozarks by joining the army, cares for her two younger brothers and mentally ill mother after her methamphetamine-cooking father, Jessup, disappears. Recently arrested on drug charges, Jessup bonded out of jail by using the family home as collateral, but with a court date set in one week's time and Jessup nowhere to be found, Ree has to find him--dead or alive--or the house will be repossessed. At its best, the novel captures the near-religious criminal mania pervasive in rural communities steeped in drug culture. Woodrell's prose, lyrical as often as dialogic, creates an unwieldy but alluring narrative that allows him to draw moments of unexpected tenderness from predictable scripts: from Ree's fearsome, criminal uncle Teardrop, Ree discovers the unshakable strength of family loyalty; from her friend Gail and her woefully dependant siblings, Ree learns that a faith in kinship can blossom in the face of a bleak and flawed existence. Publishers Weekly Reviews
Adult/High School In the poverty-stricken hills of the Ozarks, Rees Dolly, 17, struggles daily to care for her two brothers and an ill mother. When she learns that her absent father, a meth addict, has put up the family home as bond, she embarks on a dangerous search to find him and bring him home for an upcoming court date. Her relatives, many of whom are in the business of cooking crank, thwart her at every turn, but her fight to save the family finally succeeds. Rees is by turns tough and tender. She teaches her brothers how to shoot a shotgun, and even box, the way her father had taught her. Her hope is that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. A male friend feeds her hallucinogenic mushrooms and then assaults her. But, like Mattie Ross in Charles Portis's True Grit (Penguin, 1995), Rees beats the odds with spunk and courage. In spare but evocative prose, Woodrell depicts a harsh world in which the responsibilities for survival ultimately give Rees meaning and direction. He depicts the landscape, people, and dialects with stunning realism. A compelling testament to how people survive in the worst of circumstances. School Library Journal Reviews
New York Times Book Review
Hillbilly Noir by David Bowman
Winter's Bone'' is as serious as a snakebite, with a plot that seems tight enough to fit on the label of a package of chew. Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly lives deep in the Ozarks, where she looks after her two younger brothers and her crazy mother, a woman who mostly sits on a chair in a kind of feline catatonia. Ree's father is a methamphetamine cook who jumped bail after putting the family's house up as collateral. Ree has a week to find Dad before the county repossesses the place.
Woodrell's seven previous novels, featuring a population scraped from the underbelly of Arkansas citizenry -- even the children are often grotesqueries -- arrive from a genre you might want to call ''hillbilly noir.'' In ''Winter's Bone,'' he has hit upon the character of a lifetime. Young Ree Dolly allows Woodrell to glide this novel seamlessly from violence to innocence. She is hard-boiled. She is harsh. She can be sweet. She knows her way around firearms. She has a clinical compassion for her crazy mother. Ree nurtures her two preadolescent brothers by teaching them how to shoot and skin squirrels. She herself can withstand a brutal beating as well as any doe-eyed heroine of a Japanese underground comic book. Here's a bit of one of Woodrell's fight scenes: ''Ree swung a fist at those blunt teeth in a red mouth but missed. The other women closed in with boots to the shins while more heavy whacks landed and Ree felt her joints unglue, become loose, and she was draining somehow, draining to the dirt, while black wings flying angles crossed her mind, and there were the mutters of beasts uncaged from women and she was sunk to a moaning place, kicked into silence.''
Ree's home is more than just the house, it is her clan, the Dollys -- her uncles with names like Thump Milton and Uncle Teardrop, outlaws who cook crank as their daddies brewed moonshine before them. All the Dollys are intimate with violence: ''One night when Ree was still a bantling Dad had gotten crossways with Buster Leroy Dolly and been shot in the chest. ... He was electric on crank, thrilled to have been shot, and instead of driving to a doctor he drove 30 miles to ... the Tiny Spot Tavern to show his assembled buddies the glamorous bullet hole and the blood bubbling.''
''Winter's Bone'' is structured like a Philip Marlowe story in which, for each clue the dick digs up, he returns to his office to mull things over with a shot of scotch. Ree walks or drives or is driven into the snowy rural landscape on mostly red-herring dead ends. She then returns to her house and remaining family to unwind from various sorts of traumatic violence and ponder her next move while listening to tinny New Age tapes with titles like ''Alpine Dusk'' and ''The Sounds of Tranquil Streams.''
Woodrell's Ozarks are rendered in a kind of ramshackle, beautific realism. This novel begins, for example, with a striking image of meat hanging from trees: ''Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.'' There are also Inuit-like descriptions of snow. ''Frosty wet began to fall, not as flakes nor rain but as tiny white wads that burst as drops landing and froze a sudden glaze atop the snow.'' Ree herself is described as ''brunette and 16, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes. ... She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs.''
The whole Ozark milieu is rendered so completely and expertly thatWoodrell should consider changing the settings of his future novels, just as Cormac McCarthy gave up Tennessee for Mexico. Woodrell has brilliantly played out the hillbilly landscape -- its weather, its wilderness, its lack of culture and its primitive tongue: grated Parmesan is ''sprinkle cheese,'' given names are ''front names'' and sanity is described as a condition in which one's ''parts are gathered.'' His Old Testament prose and blunt vision have a chilly timelessness that suggests this novel will speak to readers as long as there are readers, and as long as violence is practiced more often than hope or language.
By DAVID BOWMAN
Bowman, David. "Hillbilly Noir." The New York Times Book Review 17 Sept. 2006: 31