Speed kills. But first, it corrodes the mind, body, soul, the family and community. Winter’s Bone gives us a nearly lethal dose of life among the methed-out zombies who’d eat their young alive. This is a portrait of warped, violent criminals, ruined by addiction to a chemical substance that transforms men into monsters and women into used and useless husks.
Ree Dolly, the courageous heroine at the center of the story, summons a strength beyond her years to meet the crushing challenge before her. At 16, she is the head of the family. Her mother has lost her mind. Her father is a crank cooking fugitive from justice. She is left to handle the care of her mother and two little brothers alone. Her father has put their house up for bail money. Missing his upcoming court appearance will cost the whole family their home. They’d be forced to live outside, in a cave, like animals.
Ree goes on a quest to find her father to bring him back, dead or alive. Along her journey she experiences unbelievable brutality at the hands of the elders she implores to help her find her father. Everyone tells her not to ask. Among these crank cookers and sellers and users there is one big no-no. If you get caught, you can’t narc. If you do, you’ll pay with your life. That is the one iron clad commandment among these interlocking clans.
Ree’s dad has broken this covenant, and condemned his little family in the process. But Ree proves her mettle, standing strong and tough in the face of extreme violence, paying the debt for her father’s sin.
Winter’s Bone has a few glimmers of hope. A cousin saves the family from starvation with a meaty bone of venison. An uncle comes to bat at a critical moment. Her best friend Gail is a good person. But beyond the few torch bearers of goodness, you get the sense that we’re looking at a band of demons in a slice of hell, where humanity has been poisoned by a chemical dependency of the very worst sort.
Daniel Woodrell does write beautifully of the bitter-cold, winter-blasted landscape of the Ozarks. The sound of combat boots on ice. The thermodynamics of icy exhalations. The images Woodrell teases from the land blurs the line between poetry and prose. It’s a short book, but you take it slow, as you would a poem. Winter’s Bone is a poetic testament to the destructive power of a very bad drug, and the triumphant power of perseverance, goodness and love.