Sunday, December 03, 2006

Book Report: Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

I couldn't find any reviews that were anything less than adulatory of this month's book for the Third Day Book Club, a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone. (I haven't read fellow bloggers' reviews, which aren't up until December 3rd; maybe some of them are critical.) (Not that I'm going to be all that critical, I'm just not feeling adulatory.) (But then I rarely feel adulatory.) (Unless I'm reading my heroine, Patry Francis's, prose.)

The book is set in the Missouri Ozark mountains, but the world they depict is a long way, culturally, if not geographically, from the world depicted in the last book I reported on, Houseboating in the Ozarks. Forrester's Ozarks are a scenic vacation waterland, where nature is unpredictably dangerous at times, but people are unfailingly helpful and polite. Woodrell's Ozarks are scenic, but are inhabited by poor white trash in danger of starving if their lethal relatives don't first kill them for violating a thieves' code of honor.

The book's narrator is a 16-year-old girl named "Ree Dolly." Yes, "Ree" is her first name and "Dolly" is her last name. (For some reason, many of the people who populate the hollows of the Ozarks depicted in this book tend to have last names that sound as if they should be first names. Besides the Dollys, there are the Miltons, the Arthurs, the Haslams and the Jessups, among others, crooks and outlaws, every one. Maybe it's the author's way of showing how unWASPish these hillbillies are; they even invert the WASPish practice of using last names as first names.)

I would call Woodrell a "flashy writer." His way with words made me stop and say, "Wow," at times, but then I realized that the story would have been better served if my attention had not been diverted to the words. He starts out by describing Ree's little hollow like this: "Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone."

His description of Ree a little later is: "Ree, brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellow 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."

It's hard to argue that Woodrell should have used "dilapidated" instead of "halt haggard" to describe falling-down houses or that "her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again" isn't a good turn of phrase, but "abrupt green eyes?" What are those? And, "a body made for loping after needs?" What exactly is he saying? There is a difference between seasoning that makes the prose taste "just right," and dumping every spice in the cabinet into the pot. I began longing for a little bland before I had digested much of this book.

The plot of the book is fairly implausible. Ree's father, a gourmet meth chef, has disappeared after putting up the family home, such as it is, to secure his bond. Unless Ree finds him, she, her two younger brothers and her crazy mother, will be put out of house and home into the cold Ozark winter. She starts asking around and persists after being threatened, and beaten up (losing her teeth in the process.) Finally, the worst guys (it is misleading to call anyone the "bad guys," they're all "bad") relent and take Ree to see her father. With the help of a chainsaw, she secures the evidence she needs to save the house, getting enough extra money in the process to take care of her siblings so that she can realize her dream of joining the Army (although how she will pass the physical without teeth is not explained. Maybe they don't need teeth to eat K-rations.)

Many of the reviewers compare Woodrell to Cormac McCarthy, which is probably why I am not enamored with this book. I don't like McCarthy's work either. Not to say it isn't good writing; smarter people than me like this kind of stuff. I gave this book three stars out of five.


paris parfait said...

I agree with many of your points. I too found some of the language distracting, including the phrases you mentioned, although other phrases I found beautifully descriptive. As for the names of families, there are many people in that region with similar names who are vaguely related to each other -distant cousins, etc. I also found it hard to imagine that virtually all the characters were so thoroughly miserable. If they had money from drugs, where did it go? Certainly not into their lifestyles.

Thanks for reading and participating in Third Day. Hope you'll join Patry next month for another selection.

tinker said...

I have to admit, while I enjoyed many of Woodrell's colorful phrases, there were many others that simply distracted me somewhat from the story.

Living in a "good" community - surrounded by several that don't enjoy a very good reputation (to put the situation in the best possible light), I can understand how the same area, the Ozarks depicted in both books can actually be depicting the area and its inhabitants, fairly accurately. Rather like seeing the dark side of the moon versus our usual view of it.

I enjoyed reading your review.

Amishlaw said...

I agree with you, Paris. The book is only 200 pages; maybe I should recommend it as an example of how to put color into one's writing.

Tinker, you're right that the two communities can and often do exist in the same place geographically. And, I think it's also true that they often exist without much awareness of the presence of the other.

colleen said...

I loved the description "abrupt green eyes," but I also understand what you mean. I paid a lot of attention to the writing before the story took hold... like watching a movie and seeing how the kiss is choreographed instead of just believing the kiss.

There are many non-mainstream life-styles in this country that the average American might be surprised by. Living in one myself, I found his description believable.

Patry Francis said...

amishlaw: You dared to say what no literary reviewers did--that sometimes too much original language can be a distraction. I admired much of it in Woodrell's book--including the abrupt green eyes, which worked for me--but a lot of it was distracting.

Have you read Steve's review? (On the Slow Train. He's also an intrepid reviewer.

Anonymous said...

I really like this comment: There is a difference between seasoning that makes the prose taste "just right," and dumping every spice in the cabinet into the pot. I began longing for a little bland before I had digested much of this book.

I did enjoy Woodrell's descriptive phrases and use of language, but I agree it was distracting at times. However, as I said in my reivew, I rather welcomed this distraction from the downright brutality of the storyline.

Excellent review! Glad you participated, and I look forward to reading your comments on the next book.

gerry rosser said...

As a drop-out this month, I'm reading as many reviews as possible, and getting gladder and gladder I didn't read the book.
I read your review carefully, and was surprised you handed out three stars.

gnightgirl said...

Back to Houseboating on the Ozarks; I looked for it at the library this week, but it is not in their system. :-(

Tarakuanyin said...

"Never use a dollar word when a dime word will do." Advice I got as a young journalist years ago. Mark Twain said something like "I never use metropolis for 7 cents when I could use city." There's a lot to be said for prose that's like clear glass. You see the world of the story through it without being aware of it. For that reason what you said about the writing in Winter's Bone resonated with me. Though I loved much of the description, sometimes I found myself stopping, startled, by something written. I couldn't tell if being halted was good or bad. It took away from the forward motion of the story, certainly, but sometimes the images were startlingly beautiful. Every now and again, though, I wasn't so sure about the way something was phrased. I experienced fewer of these moments, though, the deeper I got into the writing, as Ree's experience pulled me onwards. Great review, and thanks for commenting on mine!

Amishlaw said...

Colleen, I'm going to have to be watching for some "abrupt green eyes." Maybe I'll know them when I see them.

Patry, thank you. Being contrary is part of my make up, unfortunately. I did enjoy Steve's review. For other reader's it's here,

becca and Gerry, I probably sounded more negative about the book than I intended. Overall, it was a worthwhile book to read; I've read a lot worse. It certainly is a good example of colorful writing.

gnightgirl, I'll get you a copy of Houseboating. A good deal of it was written in the cafe where you like to hang out, so you have to read it.

tara, I got what training I have in writing as a newspaperman myself, so maybe that's why I favor a more minimalist approach. And, I'm a big Mark Twain fan, so I appreciate your comment.

M. G. Tarquini said...

I realized that the story would have been better served if my attention had not been diverted to the words.

I felt exactly the same way. After a while, I thought, 'I'm working awfully hard to read this thing. And that bothered me because I think had the writing been a little less dense, I'd have flown through and recommended it without reservations.

rdl said...

Well now I won't feel bad anymore that I brought the book back to the library, unread. I did like the way he used words in the first few pages that I did read.

Patry Francis said...

It's Suite Francaise for next month. It's 395 pages, so I've got to get started myself. Hope you like it. (I think you may be our toughest reviewer--though Steve and M.G. aren't easily won over either.) I always love to hear from those who aren't afraid to speak their minds! When you DO like something wholeheartedly, it will mean a lot.