Truer and grittier
If you remember Charles Portis’ wonderful 1968 novel, True Grit (and the subsequent Kim Darby/John Wayne film), you are likely to have a nostalgic regard for plucky Arkansas teenagers who just get up and go on when life smacks them down. Stubborn little Mattie Ross’ pursuit of her father’s killer inspired me some forty years ago, and I still get a little moral lift when I remember her. Aided only by a drunken sheriff who was frequently more of a hindrance than help, willful little Mattie persisted.
Well, it is gratifying to know that a teenage girl can still be capable of a stubborn commitment to family and honor — even when her life is at stake. I’m talking about Ree Dolly, the protagonist of Winter’s Bone, another Arkansas teenager who, in the parlance of her people, knows how to “hump her back and take it.”
Saddled with a mother who has entered a kind of second childhood and two younger brothers, Ree must cook, wash and fend off curious neighbors, debtors and law officers. To make matters worse, Ree’s father, Jessup, who is the region’s best “crank cook” has disappeared ... again. Ree has just learned that if her father does not appear at the next session of court, the Dolly family will forfeit their home. Jessup has turned over the deed to their property to the bail bondsman as assurance that he intends to keep his court appointment.
Ree Dolly’s desperate search for her father proves to be a dangerous experience that gradually takes on the trappings of a nightmare. As she trudges through the wintry, forbidding coves of Rathlin Valley, or rides through the night in a decrepit truck with her best friend, Gail, to visit a series of Jessup’s “business associates,” Ree begins to suspect that her father is dead. In addition, she senses that the people she encounters — Jessup’s relatives, enemies and lovers — all know her missing father’s fate but no one is talking. In addition, the search is becoming ominous. At first, she encounters veiled threats and anger. However, as she moves closer to a final revelation, Ree prepares for an encounter with brutal, senseless violence that will give new meaning to the old cliché about “having the crap beaten out” of you.
Despite the graphic depiction of lives warped and demeaned by drugs, there is much in this raw and vital little novel that reflects a kind of defiant nobility. Ree Dolly is a marvelous creation — a raucous Arkansas dropout who smokes “doobies,” drinks beer and practices the mysterious art of “French-kissing,” on her best friend, Gail, so that she will be reasonably prepared when she finally gets a boyfriend! Some of the most entertaining passages in Winter’s Bone deal with Ree’s ongoing “training” of her younger brothers, Harold and Sonny, in the basics of social etiquette (how to blow your nose without a handkerchief) and survival (if Sonny gets a bloody nose at school, Harold better come home with one, too). A squirrel hunt turns into instructions on “skinning and gutting.” “Pretend you are making a little suit for this squirrel, only you are taking it off instead of putting it on,” she says, wielding a skinning knife. “Now, to gut a squirrel, you take your finger and poke it through this hole ....” The queasy brothers perform admirably.
However, the basic atmosphere in Winter’s Bone is dark and foreboding. Daniel Woodrell’s narrative style possesses a crude energy that seems to be designed to reflect Ree’s world: fragmented, raw and characterized by a stoic acceptance of “things as they are.”
When the court official comes to assure Ree that their eviction is pending, he provides the desperate family with a brutal solution. If Ree can provide proof that Jessup is dead, the legal system will relent. Ree understands that if she can find “physical evidence” — a skull, a bone or a severed hand — she and her defenseless family can keep their home. Briefly, she fantasizes about joining the army, or perhaps moving the family into a remote cave. However, in the end, this defiant young girl accepts “things as they are,” and fearfully returns to a dark valley called Hawkfall where hundreds of her relatives live — sullen kinfolk with names like Uncle Teardrop, Blond Milton, Bawbee and Mrs. Thump — people who can either sustain or destroy her.
As I noted in the beginning, a surprising number of reviews of Winter’s Bone mention the novel’s resemblance to True Grit. While both books deal with a spunky Arkansas girl who finds herself abandoned in a harsh world, the resemblance is actually superficial. A lot has changed in forty years! When I compare the bleak and lonely coldness of Woodrell’s Hawkfall, where sullen folk watch silently while hapless Ree struggles through darkness and snow, Mattie Ross appears to live in an enlightened and rational setting. No, if they are handing out medals this year for spunky defiance, my vote goes to Ree Dolly and her best friend, Gail “Sweet Pea” Langan. Long may they “roll doobies” and toke.