In the past, his books, especially Tomato Red, three early novels re-released together as The Bayou Trilogy, and Woe to Live On (also made into a movie, "Ride with the Devil"), received critical praise from major publications, but popular acclaim eluded him. Perhaps it would be naive to think that he is crafting a book each time to satisfy himself and not the masses. In actuality, he probably thought how nice it would be to be able to make a comfortable living from writing. It would be nice to combine one's passion and one's livelihood. From everything I've read about Woodrell, it appears that he has consciously pulled away from what people have told him he should do and done things his own way.
Winter's Bone, then, is the book that pulled him out of the shadows, and it is a glorious celebration of the power of words. Woodrell has turned an ear for patois and an ability to tell a story to touch the heart into deeply unsettling, yet satisfying, books.
Ree Dolly is a 16-year-old girl living in the Ozarks. Her father cooks meth, has gotten into trouble with the law, and has disappeared. If she does not find him, her home, which was placed as collateral for his bond, will be taken from her. Ree is taking care of two younger brothers and her crazy mother. She is the man and woman of the house. Much of Woodrell's initial description covers what Ree has to do to help her family survive. Snow and ice cover the ground, but she must chop the wood, shoot the squirrels, wash her mother's hair, and feed the dwindling supply of oatmeal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Now she must add detective to her list. She walks over snow-covered hills and on rutted dirt roads to ask distant family members questions that they don't want to hear, much less answer. Everyone tells her to give it up, but she doggedly pursues the one item on her agenda: survival of her immediate family. Family has a rather loose meaning here. There's no warm, cozy sentiment attached to that word. One of the characters says that "scared's not a bad way to be about [Thump Milton], neither….He's my own granpaw, been around him all my life, but I still try'n make damn sure I don't ever piss him off none." Of course, Thump Milton, Ree's distant relation, is who Ree feels she has to see to answer the question of what happened to her father.
It's not just the story that is compelling; Woodrell's words are poetry. This is from the first page:
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. 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 artistry of Woodrell's words carries readers through some rather gruesome bits.
If you must see the movie, read the book first. If you've already seen the movie, don't think you won't gain anything from reading the book.