I decided to read Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone partly because he is a writer from my home state of Missouri with whom I was previously unfamiliar, and partly because this book received such unanimous praise upon its recent publication (including from two prominent litbloggers who drew attention to it in multiple posts). This review in the otherwise fairly sober-minded Guardian review pages was not atypical:
. . .a characteristically short novel of tremendous and, at times, ferocious power. Words such as 'bleak' and 'beautiful' and 'heartbreaking' spring to mind. . . .
Everything about [the protagonist's] quest is utterly compelling; everything evoked about the landscape and its people convinces completely. . . .
Woodrell's language fascinates and intrigues; he manages to make this sort of American-English seem aeons old, ancient. . . He conveys the clipped and functional utterances of the characters as strongly as the bleak beauty of the Ozarks themselves. . . .
Winter's Bone pulses between innocence's triumph and annihilation. . .reading it will make you feel that you walk on very, very thin ice, and know that chaos is very, very close. Such knowledge has many consequences; one of them is exhilaration.
Harper Barnes of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asserted that
Daniel Woodrell is a classic storyteller, a writer who is able to mold from the raw material of his culture forceful vernacular narrative that is structurally lean, yet embedded with metaphor, symbol and myth.
As to this latest novel in particular, Barnes informed us that "I just didn't want Winter's Bone to end."
According to Carolyn See
In the hands of a conventionally educated urban author, [the] characterizations would seem intolerably condescending and elitist, but Daniel Woodrell was born and raised in the Missouri Ozarks and still makes his home in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line. He's not taking cheap shots; he's reporting life as he sees it.
Any reservations about the authenticity of these characters and their actions would be "carping," since "Woodrell simply shows us a world, the raw meat of it. If we can't stomach his reality, it's our problem, not his."
Suffice it to say I did not find the world depicted in Woodrell's novel so overpoweringly "raw" I didn't want to "stomach his reality," nor did I find Ree, the novel's protagonist, to be like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, "a knight in a world full of craven churls." Neither can I echo some of the over-the-top terms--"tremendous," "ferocious," "utterly compelling"--used by so many reviewers in describing this book, as illustrated in these excerpts. I can't say I found it a bad book (I managed to finish it, and a few of its scenes are well done enough), but I'm finally just puzzled about what such reviewers are seeing in it that warrant these kinds of hosannas.
Speaking as someone raised in southeastern Missouri, on the other side of the Ozarks, I found the characters in Winter's Bone mostly unconvincing, verging on Daisy Mae-type stereotyping of "rural America." The men are all bumptious ne'er-do-wells whose assumed authority and propensity to violence and law-breaking are faintly cartoonish. The women are strong but trapped in the backwardness of their crcumstances, capable both of killing in order to guard family honor and of enduring great hardship to keep those families functioning in their disfunction. Indeed, these characters might have been more compelling (at least to me) if the author had deliberately exaggerated their cartoonish qualities, played them for laughs rather than as defining characteristics we're meant to take seriously.
However, I suspect it's precisely the depiction of the characters as modern-day hillbillies that made Winter's Bone immediately appealing to some readers. So unlike the people such reviewers interact with in their own lives, they are safely "other," and a novel portraying them and their environment brings an acceptable dash of "local color." And it's so much easier to consider characters like these as "embedded with metaphor, symbol and myth." Who's going to regard a harried urban professional contemplating infidelity as an embodiment of "myth"?
The appeal of Winter's Bone certainly cannot be based on its narrative power. In an interview with the author, John Freeman informs us that after reading Raymond Chandler, "Mr. Woodrell realized he might be in an in-between place, a literary writer who believes in the imperative of story above all else." I don't think Chandler would be enthralled with the narrative twists in Winter's Bone. Mostly Ree, who lives with her younger brothers and her mentally-evacuated mother and who must locate her ramblin' man of a father or lose her home, travels around from place to place, talking to various members of her widely-extended family to see if they know where he is. Eventually she confirms that he's dead. That's about it, but from such meager drama we're to regard Ree as an epic heroine, her "quest" an elemental saga. One of the blurbs on the book's jacket would have us believe that "Winter's Bone is as timeless as Homer."
Then there's Woodrell's style, the language that seems "aeons old, ancient," the "forceful vernacular narrative." On the one hand, the novel is filled with relatively pleasant passages of "poetic" description. especially descriptions of nature, with which the characters are portrayed as being in intimate co-existence:
As the frosty bits dwindled the wind slowed and big snowflakes began falling as serenely as anything could fall the distance from the sky. Ree listened to lapping waves of far shores while snowflakes gathered on her. She sat unmoving and let snow etch her outline in deepening clean whiteness. The valley seemed in twilight though it was not yet noon. The three houses across the creek put on white shawls and burning lights squinted golden from the windows. Meat still hung from limbs in the side yard, and the snow began clinging to the limbs and meat. Ocean waves kept sighing to shore while snow builit everywhere she could see.
Some of this edges toward cliche ("lapping waves of far shores"), but the first sentence is nice, and the image of the snow-encrusted meat is both acridly humorous and an apt symbol of the existence being led by the inhabitants of the "valley."
On the other hand, a passage like this strikes me as overly cute in its attempt at demotic lyricism:
A field, a line of trees, a small path with a few paw prints wending deeper into the woods. A plump waxing moon and silvered landscape. Merab followed the beam and led them on a slow wamble across a rankled field, then a slight curving path rose to a balled mound with a knuckled ridge and down again into a vale. It was a coggly path to an iced pond, with a hedge of blowdown barring the way. The logs and branches caused slipping and barked shins, oaths and mutters, but were soon put behind, and the women gathered into a puffing rank, staring down at the stiffened pond.
The wambling and the coggly paths just don't do much for me. It's part of a "vernacular" that is simply a rustic version of the same old routine psychological realism (we're receiving these details as they are filtered through Ree's perception of them) employed so reflexively in most contemporary literary fiction.
I also have to say I found the deus ex machina-inspired happy ending of Winter's Bone (Ree is saved from indigence by a providential stash of cash) pretty treacly. I'm suprised the reviewers I've cited weren't more bothered by it themselves. But perhaps they found it only what was due the Odysseus-like protagonist after her wanderings through the winter-blasted Ozarks, her tilting between "innocence's triumph and annihilation." It would be of a piece with the general critical exhaltation of what is finally a rather thin slice of workshop realism.