Book Review Rewind: Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

I thought I’d put up another of my slightly older reviews that have never seen the pages of a blog. I first read and reviewed Winter’s Bone in 2010, and I was simply blown away. I’ve updated my review with thoughts on the film adaptation and some of Woodrell’s other work.

WintersBoneTitle: Winter’s Bone
Author: Daniel Woodrell
First Published: 2006
Reviewed: 2010 (original, updated 2013)
Rating: 4.5/5

I grew up in the Ozarks, within an hour of Daniel Woodrell’s hometown of Springfield, Missouri. I lived in a (very) small town, as opposed to the particular sort of rural extended-family hereditary community described in Winter’s Bone, and I had grown and gone before the meth epidemic (which plays an important part in this story) rolled over the region, but I’ve seen enough of rural Ozark culture to say Daniel Woodrell’s vision rings true. The author draws you right in to this harsh, visceral world with his mastery of description and his authentic characterization. 

16-year-old Ree Dolly is a fighter, a survivor; she’s tough as old boot leather, intuitive, and loyal. She may be rough around the edges, but she’s terrifically competent, courageous, and wise beyond her years. Ree’s Dad has jumped bail, and her family – two young brothers and a mother whose mind is permanently hazed by psychiatric medications – stands to lose their meager home and acreage to the bail-bondsman if he doesn’t show for his court date. So Ree determines to hunt him down and to protect her family at all costs. Trouble is, Ree’s kin are notoriously tight-lipped and clannish and none too eager to help, and Ree has a long row to hoe if she is to make things right. It’s a simple story at the core, but life in rural Ozark country can be surprisingly complicated. Braving both the elements and her own fears, Ree untangles the web of tradition confining her to find the truth.

This book could have been ultimately bleak, and I went into it expecting a real downer. But Ree’s spirit rises up from the page and lifts her story to another level. She becomes an archetypal heroine in a modern quest story. Daniel Woodrell has written a whopper of a story with a young Titaness of a protagonist, a brisk and believable read, and I heartily recommend it.

2013 update to my original review:  Having since seen the 2010 film adaptation of this book, starring Jennifer Lawrence, I will say that although I thought the movie was excellent, with Lawrence delivering a brilliant performance and director Debra Granik having a keen eye for small details, the book was better.  Such is often the case, but there was more of a sense of urgency, a strangling sensation of hope slowly being wrung out of Ree’s situation, and an even stronger feeling of her continued determination in the book than on the screen.  The adaptation is fairly faithful, although some small details were changed, such as one of Ree’s younger brothers morphing into a sister in the film.  I imagine the director thought a barefoot, dirty-faced little girl in a ratty dress would elicit more audience sympathy than another scruffy looking little boy…or something.  But this sort of detail-switching does little to alter the overall feel of the story.  I would definitely recommend the film, but read the book first.

So, I obviously loved the book, but would you like it? Hmm… I would recommend this to fans of southern Gothic literature, such the works of Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy.  On the surface, this is a hard-edged tale of desperate yet determined characters in a gritty, unforgiving world, but at its core, it is nothing short of a taut, moving epic of mythic proportions.  It is unassumingly short, its massive story condensed by unrelenting pressure into an immensely powerful black hole of a novel.  If this sounds like your sort of story, I hope you’ll give it a go, and if you find yourself enjoying Woodrell’s prose, you’ll be glad to find he has a whole Pandora’s box of stories in his pocket, from standalone dark-humored “country noir” to coming-of-age to mystery series to collections of short fiction.  His latest, September 2013’s The Maid’s Version, involves a fatal fire at a dance hall in 1920s Missouri, conflict between the locals and “gypsies” and St. Louis mobsters, and a maid willing to risk everything to bring the arsonist(s) to justice.  I can’t wait to read it!


3 thoughts on “Book Review Rewind: Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

    • Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of it as a sub-genre, either, although I was fairly familiar with some of the authors who are considered part of it. Wikipedia’s synopsis of the genre is actually pretty decent:

      “Southern Gothic is a subgenre of Gothic fiction unique to American literature that takes place exclusively in the American South. Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may or may not dabble in hoodoo, ambivalent gender roles and decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or coming from poverty, alienation, racism, crime, and violence.”

      Besides those I mentioned – Faulker, O’Connor and McCarthy – they also list Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams and Thomas Wolfe as some of the most representative authors in this style. Once I learned that there was a category for their style(s) of writing, of course it became really obvious to me.

      I’ve really been enjoying my forays into Southern Gothic lit, and I’m happy I have so many more classic SG authors and works yet to discover!

  1. I’m so glad to see another fan of Winter’s Bone on the book blogs! It’s one of my all-time favorite books and I keep trying to push it on other readers/bloggers! I read this back in 2006 and then again in 2011. Liked the movie too – thought it had a good cast. I have read his Bayou Trilogy which had some superb writing in it and I have Tomato Red currently checked out from the library, which I’m looking forward to.


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