Eye of the Story

The Evergreen State College

Category: Week 8 Reading

Close Reading: Sex & Death

Lucas Weisman

The first sequence of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amor is intensely disturbing. This is surprising, because superficially it is what would be called in Hollywood vernacular a “love scene”. We see close ups of two people in bed together, a heterosexual (albeit mixed-race) couple is having sex. The scene cuts to show stinging imagery of the damage caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. This is a graphic scene. What possible connection could there be between a couple copulating and the horrors of the Second World War? I am not completely sure that there is a single answer, however many of the authors we have read this quarter have grappled with the intersection of sex and death.

Perhaps the only thing more disturbing than juxtaposing sex and death, is taking pleasure in the matter. In Joan Didion’s collection of essays The White Album, Didion paints a dark picture of Hollywood in the late 1960’s. Her essay on The Doors characterizes the era, describing them as disillusioned aftermath of the flower-power generation. For Didion, The Doors’ lyrics embody an unusually dark fascination with sexuality in a way that transcends their contemporaries. Maybe, Didion’s own world was unusually dark, having been personally affected by the Manson murders. Didion makes the claim that “The doors’ music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation.” (21, Didion) It is common for people to take pleasure in sex, however it is extraordinarily rare for people to openly take pleasure in death. In her discussion of The Doors’ hedonistic lyrics, I get the impression that for Didion, Hollywood (and perhaps the world) are far more troubling than most people would like to believe. And that in fact we all at some level have a strange fascination, and perhaps (at least for Jim Morrison and his revealing vinyl pants) fetishization of death.

The connections W.G. Sebald makes between sex and death in his book The Rings of Saturn are far more unsettling than those in The White Album. Saturn is a far darker novel then it appears to be on the surface, and a perfect example of this is when the narrator encounters a couple making love on the beach. The narrator is confused in his memory whether the couple was two humans or a single sea monster, explaining that he “…turned to look back down the deserted stretch I had come by, and could no longer have said whether I had really seen the pale sea monster at the foot of the Covehithe cliffs or whether I had imagined it.” (69, Sebald) Sex—a process often associated with the beginning of life—is juxtaposed with the image of a sea monster, a manifestation of death. Throughout the entire novel, Sebald’s narrator is grappling to make life meaningful in spite of humanity’s hatred and the certainty of death. The book delves deeply into the worst parts of human history, namely genocide. For Sebald, Sex is a process that represents life, a process that forces people to answer seemingly impossible questions about why we should live. This connection is made most clear when Sebald makes his one of few real textual references to the Holocaust in his discussions of silkworms. He discusses the silkworm explaining that “the only purpose it has is to propagate. The male dies soon after mating. The Female lays three to five hundred eggs over the course of several days, and then also dies.” (275, Sebald) Yet again, there is a connection that is being made between sex and death, however this one strikes at the jugular. Is Sebald asking his readership if the sole purpose of human life is to propagate? For one generation to give birth to another generation who is equally clueless about where humans belong in the cosmos, another generation perhaps just as likely to commit genocide?

 

Marilee G. Hyde Winters Bone Close Reading

Marilee G. Hyde
Eye of the Story
Close reading review: Winters Bone 2/25, 2016

Winters Bone
I was going to compare the book to the movie but as the schedule has changed and people won’t have viewed the movie at the time of this review I must find something else to talk about.
I originally bought the movie sight unseen, I was looking for Jennifer Lawrence movies and I really like thrillers. I didn’t know it was based on a novel until the ending credits. I usually like to read the book first, but I have learned to like movies for themselves, and not in how they compare with the original inspiration.
I shall instead concentrate on the author’s use of language, and Ree as the heroine. The story takes place in the Ozarks. Those of us who were born in places like the Pacific Norwest, and come from a securely middle class home often sneer at the accents and “folksy” way of speaking and behaving. They are victims of stereo types as surely as any. They are referred to as “hillbillies,” and the term “Deliverance” is often used when speaking of these people.
Deliverance was a thriller written in 1970 by James Dickey. It was, like Winters Bone, adapted by the author and the director into a 1972 film. It was considered a landmark novel and is considered one of the 100 best 20th century novels.
Deliverance took place in the North Georgia wilderness while winters bone is located in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. Both are remote areas that have been inhabited for decades by the same families that often intermarry and remain an enclosed society.
I particularly noticed the use of language the author of Winters Bone used. It was crude and yet poetic, for example, page 48, where the driver of the delivery truck who stops to give Ree a ride says he wasn’t supposed to give rides but jeez, that wind, that wind sort of blows the rules away, don’t it?
On page 49 the author notes that the old part of Hawkfall seemed ancient and a creepy sort of sacred. I find that although the language perhaps makes the characters sound ignorant and unsophisticated it is a window into the lives of people who do not exist for us. People so poor they don’t eat regular meals, shoot most of their food, and process it themselves, just as they did in the last century and beyond.
Their lives seem so bleak and joyless; it would seem they have a lot of children because they don’t have anything else to do. In Ree’s community having a regular mainstream job is rare, they all make illegal drugs in order to make money, and they use the drugs themselves to forget the horrible things they had to do to get to the top of the heap. In the society they are trapped in, the people see no alternative to the lifestyle they inhabit.
Ree has had to grow up too soon. Her mother is mentally ill and can no longer take care of the family. It has forced Ree to shoulder all the responsibility of raising her little brothers. She dreams of getting out of the town they are in, but knows she cannot leave her little dependents. She seeks to train them to care for themselves, but when she finds out her father has let her down and possibly lost the very house they live in; she finds the moral courage to try and bring her father to acknowledge his responsibilities. When she starts knocking on doors for help she is told on page 56 “That’s sure a bad boat you been left in…” Once again a poetic way of saying she is in some kind of shit.
The hierarchy of the community is the same as the previous century, there is a patriarch, and in this novel it is Thump Milton, who is the highest authority. The underlings become annoyed that Ree is not being deterred by the people in the line, up the food chain. She is trying to get to the head man but there are rules and Ree is trying to bypass them. She understands the rules, how I don’t know; it must be something you learn from the very beginning. At some point it becomes clear to her that her father is not just missing, he is probably dead. Her acceptance of this is disturbing to me. She is showing the most basic of instincts, survival and the survival of her young ones. Ree wastes little time on grieving for a father who let her down more often than not. When the women who tried to put her in place, i.e. beat her up, come to her house to take her to her daddy’s bones, Merab says “…we need to put a stop to all this upset talk about us we’ve been havin to hear.” To which Ree replies “I aint said a thing about you.” and the answer to that is “we know, everybody else has.” Page 180.
This exchange proves that her fears have been confirmed. Her father is indeed dead and the only thing left is to prove it in order to save her house. Ree understands the pecking order in the community, but she has also determinedly stood her ground in order to prevail for her mother and brothers. She is now the bread winner and must do everything she can to continue their survival.
In conclusion, I find that Ree is a heroine to be admired. She knows she is in an impossible situation and longs to get out of it. But her sense of duty and responsibility, both admirable characteristics, are strong in her and she seeks to find peace for herself as best she can. For example, using the soothing nature sounds on her iPod to help her meditate. One feels hopeful that things will turn out alright, that her brothers will grow up well and not in jail. I would like to think that eventually she is able to leave that town behind with a clear conscience and join the army or do something worthwhile for herself. To live a life that is hers and not living so others can live.

Uncertainly, Dear (Art & Fear) – Max Melaas

(Put this here as there doesn’t seem to be a section for Week 9 Readings. Sorry Winter’s Bone folks!)

Max Melaas

Caryn Cline & Sam Schrager

Eye of the Story

February 28, 2016

Uncertainly, Dear (Art & Fear)

            It’s a strange work of irony that my favorite film of the quarter, John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, is arguably among the most nebulous and evasive of this program’s viewings (at least in its presentation), and that at the same time my favorite book of the quarter, David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art and Fear, is arguably among the most straightforward and unornamented of our readings. Rather than a continuous narrative or collection of introspective essays, Art and Fear is, in format and intended function, exactly what it says on the back cover: “An Artist’s Survival Guide.” Admirably, the language and tone employed by the co-authors, as well as their stance on the subject matter of artmaking, is demystifying and matter-of-fact, deftly evading the pitfalls of condescending quasi-philosophical quackery that consigns so many paperbacks to the Barnes & Noble self-help aisle; the awakening of my inner dolphin-spirit will have to wait. While the guide’s use of humor will not likely send many spilling out of their chairs in fits of lung-collapsing laughter, they are frequent and wry enough to impart some texture to the work as a whole without overstaying their welcome or feeling shoehorned-in for their own sake; they always seem to have something to do with the subject matter pertinent to any given section. If Art & Fear didn’t feel like such an appropriate capstone to the collected readings of this program, I’d have to bear it some resentment for coming along so late with advice and meditations that I really could have used earlier on in the quarter.

Bayles and Orland’s handy guide observes and explores a litany of obstacles on the path to creating a work of art, pointing out a number of hooks and snags that seem obvious to us only after reading about them but which, in the practice of artmaking, we’re all too prone to walking into. “What if we can’t finish it? What if we chose the wrong format and wasted all this time? What if no one understands, or attempts to understand? What if they compare us to so-and-so? You know, we might as well just give up.”

            The second chapter, which bears the book’s own name, ends with a section on page 19 entitled “Uncertainty”. The section details a number of struggles from a number of people in the course of creating something, from Uelsmann to Tolstoy to Lincoln, all of them wrestling with doubts about their work, whether it be their ability to properly handle it, the response that work would invoke upon the raising of the proverbial curtain, or any number of little, conspiring fears. This theme of doubt, of uncertainty, is ever-present in some form or other throughout Art & Fear, as it in many ways serves as the foundation for so many of those looming threats of failure that, for many, hang so heavy over the artmaking process as to put an stop to it. The uncertainty of your own artistic qualifications gives rise to the fear that you’re merely “pretending” to do art. The uncertainty of whether or not your work will be accepted as art by party X, Y, or Z invites the fear that it will be unceremoniously brushed off as quaint or the work of some hack. And so forth.

            It would seem at this point that uncertainty is a menace to artists the world over, and your masterpiece can only be created in its complete absence. Not so, says Art & Fear, for the same section of the text that introduces the pitfalls of uncertainty also insists upon its inexorable necessity to the creation of art. The co-authors liken it to starting a sentence without knowing exactly how it will end, asserting that while such a tactic is not advisable for public speakers, it is an excellent practice for artists, as it allows art to happen in an organic, real way that, in turn, makes a piece more believable than if it had been planned out in intricate detail. On that same page, 20 to be exact, Art & Fear spoke almost directly to me by pointing out the futility of making detailed plot outlines in writing stories, a practice I’ve held to for many years. Though I’m well aware that every artist has their methods and that if that method should produce a result then it is not invalidated, part of me always felt tethered by those plans. But I made them out of a fear that I could not write without them, born from the uncertainty of my writing abilities.

            Central as it is to many of an artist’s fears, uncertainty conceals itself behind most of the following sections throughout the book like a puppet master cycling through its many marionettes. Uncertainty itself returns for a final bow in the last paragraph of the book, on page 119, where the authors end Art & Fear by illustrating a dilemma faced by all artists: will you put all you have into your work and face the ambiguity of its outcome, or will you hedge your bets and pull your artistic punches, thereby assuring a hollow, unsatisfying work? “[C]uriously,” write the authors, “uncertainty is the comforting choice” (Bayles and Orland 119).

In a broader sense, when are you ever creating something with absolute certainty of what the finished product will be? If you empty the contents of a brand new box of LEGOs onto the floor, which comes with detailed instructions, is there complete certainty that the fruits of your hard work will be indistinguishable from the vibrant fantasy depicted on the packaging? What if the packing machines in that factory in Denmark made some sort of error and slipped a flat, smooth, red circle-y piece in where a tall, wide, beige rectangle-y piece should have been? What then, LEGOmaniac, what then? You make art, that’s what! You write a terse letter of complaint to LEGO quality assurance, then you make art.

 

Works Cited

Bayles, David, and Ted Orland. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Santa Cruz, CA & Eugene, OR: Image Continuum, 2015. Print.

Close Reading Winters Bone

What I want to talk about is description. How things are laid out within the story presents something that sparks a conversation with the reader, affecting how the story is read and understood.

Woodrel doesn’t just present his characters by describing them directly. He uses other methods I find interesting and also like. For example, Ree is describes by what she does and her relationships with other people. Not just that though. Also what she thinks and sees in the world seems to make a difference.

The narrator’s descriptions of the physical environment in which Ree lives lends much to the story. Throughout the book, little pieces, fragments of the truth are dropped throughout the pages in this poetic way. Woodrell arranges this trail of fragments in such a way that it makes the reader think. This is where the dialogue between the book and reader comes in.

There are many descriptions of the world within Winters Bone that speak far beyond their surface meaning, and spark something deeper. On page 13, Ree took note of how Virginia smelled, she liked it. This occurred twice, in two separate but close together parts of the book. Once when she first saw Virginia and they spoke. Then when Ree is walking away from Virginia’s and Teardrop’s house, back home, Ree notices the pleasant smell of Virginia on her sleeves. In truth, the smell is less of Vieginia, and probably more marijuana. The connection can be made after Virginia offers to roll Ree a “doobie” for her walk back home, along with the direct relation of Virginias scent to weed on page 13. To the question of offering a joint, we are left without a direct answer as to whether or not Ree accepts it, but it can assume she took Virginia up on it when directly after that question, description of altered consciousness follows. (15) “She took to pausing more often to study on things that weren’t usually of interest.”

Why does Virginias relationship to dope matter? Woodrell may be assigning characters in the book different drugs to help represent them. Virginia, is involved with weed. In this first section of the book she is the only one who makes any mention of it. This observation is in contrast to Teardop, a violent fellow who seems much more interested in the bag of crank on the table he examines in the light. Drawing away from these two characters, Rees mother and father both have their own drugs. Her dad, Jessup, is a meth cook and her mother is hooked on anti-depressants. Then, Ree’s two brothers, neither of which do drugs, seem to like booze. They aren’t drinkers and the only time they drink alcohol is when Ree gives them some mixed with honey for the hoarse throats they both have from coughing. It is nothing to take note of until later on page 20 there is a funny moment when her brother Sonney brings it up again.

““Sonny called forth a shallow cough and said, “Got’ny more of that syrup?”

“Huh-uh. You two like it too much.” Replies Ree

“It sure gets rid of that scratchy feelin’ good, though.””

It is kind of a funny moment, possibly darkened with foreshadowing, and it wouldn’t be anything to think of really accept I cannot think of a single person who has ever thought Cough medicine tasted good. However, for some reason these two little guys seems to be taking a liking to it. it is a humorous moment connecting them with alcohol, possibly speaking for their future.

This is only a small piece of the book, but their might be some purpose to it. I see characters connected to their different drugs in ways that speak for them. These drugs represent part of them in a way, and at the same time, speak for Ree as well.

Drugs have their connotations. Weed, is much different than meth. Both are very different from alcohol and pharmaceutical antidepressants. It might be argued that I am a little wrong here, but I would like to continue on my train of thought and say that they are at least thought of in different ways. Meth and tweakers go together in a way different from how alcoholics and alcohol do, same with weed and stoners. It seems that through the way these characters are initially presented through their connection to specific drugs, we are taught something about them through that connection.

 

Now I want to go into the actual description of environment. For their reality, the crude imperfections and the history and even future of this world we are reading about, makes things pop. Everything becomes real.

On page 16. The description of Gail and Floyds property: a small single wide trailer with a crappy barn close enough to its deck that one could pee on the side of it is mentioned with importance enough to tell us that part of the barns wood had been discolored by the time people had spent peeing on it from the houses deck. This simple observation throws a lot of weight. Along with learning that the property is inherited, and falling apart. A history of that family is painted by such description; I see them slowly falling into that description.

The description shows years of people not really caring, having other things to worry about, and not having money to fix things needing fixed. It gets to the point that a sort of game has been made of pissing on a barn that has been in the family for generations. This little piece is like the charry on a banana spilt, topping it all off with a purposeful punctuation point.

The next little slice comes on page 18. “A giant Beer mug filled brown with pennies sat on the dresser. The bed was an unmade wallow of yellow sheets and patchwork blankets.’ From these two sentences these words might come to mind: Poor, Beer, Dirty, and Old – with a hint of love and care. Poor, because if someone goes through the trouble of saving a mug full of only pennies, they are probably poor; so poor in fact, that they have scraped that mug out of desperation for any change that does not include pennies, leaving only pennies. The beer part goes along with the beer mug of course, it makes sense. Any connotations that go along with beer are directly given to us through a lense of poorness and our own experiences and understanding of alcohol and poverty. Next, dirty, because yellow sheets sound gross. Piss and long periods of sweat and bodies sleeping on them comes to mind. Sheets that were probably once white, becomes an automatic assumption, along ith an understanding of why cleaning them is not at the top of the bucket list. Old is thoughts of from the description because a patchwork blanket and dirty sheets are usually old. Even the pennies scream some age. It takes a while to get a mug of only pennies. The love part comes last. A “patchwork blanket”, not only patches but “patchwork”. It involves thread and hands that are used to sewing. The old blanket is loved and cared for, it is needed for warmth. Love comes from the time and care put into that “patchwork blanket”.

Then again though, here is the dialogue that has been created between Woodrell and the reader. This blanket can make us think thriftiness and a number of other things as well. It does not inherently symbolize love. I think the fact that my lovely grandmother made quilts, which I associate with patchwork must have an influence on me thinking about love. These are just my connections with the text. They are not the only conversation.

So here’s the point. Throughout this story, so many pieces, slices of life, are intentionally laid out for the reader to digest. I think the author does this very well. The story poetically speaks for itself in dialogue with whoever reads it. This isn’t a telling of events. It is a sharing of pieces that can be related with.

One last piece. Page 20. “Pine trees with low limbs spread over fresh snow made a stronger vault for the spirit than pews and pulpits ever could”. Ree is closely related with nature. She longs to get away. She finds solace in nature, parts of nature anyway. This is important to the story as well. Equally important is Ree’s constant listening to nature sounds that she would never find in the nature that she seeks solace in around her home. In her world.

Winter’s Bone – Scott Weedall

I read Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone as I had just come down with nasty cold and I think that it was the perfect condition to read the book. I shivered to my core as Ree was covered in ice and trudged through deep blustery cold.  As Ree lost consciousness I was having difficulty focusing and staying awake. And when the truth about Ree’s father became apparent I was so shocked that I coughed a big veiny oyster out of my lungs. I could hardly put this book down from my engagement but I was forced to many times as I had to blow my nose; or if I ran out of tissues, spit mouthfuls of clear mucus into the bathroom sink.

Independent of my health I think this is a fantastic book. The prose describing the Ozarks is vivid and profound; the Characters are nuanced and multidimensional. The lives of this family are portrayed without judgement and I felt strongly for Ree and her family, and throughout the book I wanted her to find her father.

I’m intrigued by what the film adaptation will be like. A guiding question for this class is what can story accomplish? And I want to explore what a novel can accomplish that isn’t possible in a film medium. I’ve made a point of knowing as little as possible about the film adaptation. I also missed the Tuesday Seminar session due to the illness mentioned in Paragraph one. So my guesses about the movie vs. the book are purely speculative and I am putting myself at risk of being wrong. Let’s get started.

Throughout the book the action Ree engages in and the places she visits are weighted with years of history, personal memory and legend. The reader is not just following the protagonist but experiencing her stream of consciousness and the memories that are evoked within her as she visit each location. An example of this is in pages 64-69, when Ree takes shelter in a cave, we are simultaneously being informed about how the Dolly family has used these caves for generations and the Legend of Haslam. The action of Ree making a camp fire for the night is told simultaneously with the mythology of her family and the Mountains. In the novel this is accomplished by having one paragraph describe Ree, and then another describe Haslam and intermixing the three narratives as necessary.

It’s difficult for me to imagine how a scene like this might be accomplished in the context of a film. Literature tends to be much more like a stream of consciousness, but Film is a painting made of light and sound. In the book the reader has immediate access to the main characters thoughts and memories, but the viewer of the film can only speculate Ree’s thoughts based on the words she says and the emotions expressed by the actor. The film could have a voice over but voice over in film is notorious for being problematic. I personally feel that voiceover in narrative filmmaking needs to be used carefully, since in many cases it can result in  lazy story telling. The viewer should be experiencing the world through sights and sounds, and voice over should only be used if the narrator has a unique perspective or affectation that would not be in the story otherwise.

Another example where Present action is blended with history and mythology is on pages 115-116, where Ree smells her mother’s ‘sweet’ breath and is recalls a childhood memory where her then cogent mother was affectionate and told her stories about the mythical creatures of the Ozarks. This memory is weaved seamlessly into the central narrative. But in a film it would be very difficult to communicate what someone’s breath smelled like without one of the actors describing it. Also that scene would require a flashback which depending on when it was placed in the film could risk interrupting the main story. Also such a flashback might not be necessary since I feel like a flashback of Ree’s mom before she had her breakdown wouldn’t encapsulate the mythology of the Ozarks the way this passage did.

This book beautifully weaves the present actions of Reed with the history of her family and the magic that Woodrell imbues into the mountains. But I doubt that the film will be able to do the same. The purpose of this essay isn’t to say that film is an inferior medium. I think film can accomplish things that cannot be done in literary form, but the stream of consciousness presented in the novel is something that film as a format is not well suited for. I doubt that the legends of the Ozarks will be in the film and if they are it will probably be reduced to some lame contrived monologue at the beginning and end of the film. And I’m sure the actors will say something along the lines of, “blood runs thicker than water,” or some shit like that.

But the present action of the film will primarily be grounded by the scenes preceding them and not the history that precedes the films narrative. I think that if the adaptation is to be successful it shouldn’t worry about the historical and mythological elements I’ve describe, but focus on telling a story grounded in the present moment. I suppose my opinion doesn’t really matter that much since as of currently no one trusts me to make a multi-million dollar film. Still it is my opinion, and even if it’s only as valuable as the paper it’s written on I’m still going to share it with the class.

Keegan Linnett, Winter’s Bone, Week 8

Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone is a story written clean and poignantly that creates a world that is instantaneous and chewable. The plot is kept streamlined: a girl trying to track down her criminal dad to preserve the tattered remains of her immediate family. The setting is evocative: a unfriendly landscape whose bitter frost is found also in the personalities of its inhabitants. The structure is generous: short snapshots of one character’s encounters like journal entries told from the third person. The book does not necessarily make this a surprising narrative. Readers pretty much know everything about the story by the halfway point. This is tough living in tough society. Ree is a daring character and is almost too smart for her own good, is probably going to have a relationship with another girl, probably going to get into some sticky situations, keep pushing where there’s dangerous resistance, and her dad is almost certainly already dead. With someone this independent on a mythic and female-centric hero’s journey, the struggles, connections, and longings Ree feels come with little surprise. More so what deserves attention is gathering the image of the larger relationship between an individual and their roots all the while with Woodrell’s chilling imagery holding it all together.

Most of the book feels like a description of a dream, snow and cold that most people probably can’t imagine. Ree’s time on heavy painkillers in her prolonged state of a waking dream I can imagine is similar to what reading this book is like for real people. Winter in the Ozarks has a level of palatability that seems so low and a feeling so surreal it is difficult to imagine that people do in fact experience this kind of lifestyle. The people who are the roughest and most unsympathetic to Ree come around to help her in a way that is just as tough and remorseless whether that means taking her to important locations, granting her presence with someone, or giving her medicine. It’s not easy and rarely seems true, but in the unspoken laws that govern the characters of Winter’s Bone family and kin do count for something when it matters.

 “Maybe tonight Blond Milton’ll bring us by one to eat.”

“That could be.”

“Don’t kin ought to?”

“That’s what is always said.”

(5)

 

Telling the story from Ree’s point of view gives clear idea of the difference in perspective between the inside and out. We learn why Ree is the protagonist and what makes her different enough to shake things up so much. Even though the business of meth is already pretty shaken up, someone with the courage to start digging around for their own agenda will inevitably disrupt the tolerated balance that’s been prepared for by the unwritten laws of this land. Those who need to know do and those who don’t look the other way. Ree rides the line between abiding and stretching the established order.

Help here works in a sadistic, begrudging model of symbiosis. It may seem that the actions of most characters are either taken in self-interest or clan-interest with violence as a commonality and the cost of earning any favors is jousting successfully in the ballsy proving ground of something not limited to just masculinity but a personal dedication of mind, body, and soul. With the mind, orient it around your kin. Be willing to lay your body down for them. Evaporate your soul in the embrace of death or meth as Teardrop preached, “You got to be ready to die every day — then you got a chance.”  Neither of Ree’s parents exited successfully. Jessup had his mind and soul in the right place, promising to return with money and food, making money in the chemical kitchen. He kept his body for himself though, taking it on passionate whims. “Dad might think he had reasons to be most anywhere or do most anything, even if the reasons seemed ridiculous in the morning.” (29) And he ended swollen in the bottom of a pond for his own thoughtful reasons. Mom, as we learned, had the courage of mind at one point and managed to keep her body around but fell out of passion, afraid of death and abandoned by love and now floats in a limbo on earth being neither dead nor alive. Ree’s entire function in this book is to serve her parents even though she convulses at the thought of becoming anything like them. That is to say, Ree has dedicated herself to tradition and family even though it’s plain to see she has intentionally stepped part of the way out of it. Her fantasies of running away to join to military are not cogent enough to make her want otherwise than to locate her father, maintain her mother, and prolong the creations of those two: herself, two brothers, and the house. Ree is not admirable as a protagonist because she is  or becomes enlightened, because she does not. It is because she is determined.  She is both within and without and has crafted her position in society bravely.

In her journey and pursuit of the knowledge that will determine the future of her family, Ree has numerous encounters with mythic figures and appreciations or realizations that give her what she needs to take the next step. This book feels like a cross between Harry Potter and Twin Peaks but with a much heavier, colder infusion. The dream-like imagery and mysterious characters create fantastical and adventurous mythos that meets investigative mystery in a smalltime rural town

The rules and expectations of the community are visible in the image and ideals seen in the older characters in this book. The one and insignificant sheriff plays no role in this justice system. The personalities this community values is evident because Sonny and Harold are entering a time in their boyhood that will expose and mold them largely for the rest of their lives. Ree chooses it to be her who teaches them how to shoot, skin, and fight. She does not teach them in any way that is particularly gracious or wise, just one that is effective and practical. It is not important to think differently about the relationship to then gun but rather about the people standing with the person standing with the gun, the kin. It is important that it is Ree herself who is teaching the boys and not some maliciously guised adult or even the boys themselves.

The ideals and expectations of society members are seen in the section where Ree teaches Harold and Sonny how to skin squirrels. This is a rite of passage for something that might easily be confused with masculinity that the boys need to experience because they are boys. It is not about gender but how to survive. Ree is beginning to give them tools for the ownership of their bodies and lives. Harold is young. He is eight years old and is visibly pained to see a squirming squirrel drop bloody out of a tree onto the snow. He takes himself away from the skinning table when asked to remove the guts. Harold realizes a lot is happening right now. A life has been taken and at eight years old, all lives might still be held sacred. But there is also his own identity on the skinning board with the bloody squirrel. There is the risk of letting his fear show, which like all kids he can’t hide one bit. And then there is the factor of competition with his brother who actively wants his hand to be writhing around in the animal. Ree and Gail understand and subtly acknowledge the weight of this moment for Harold. They do not outright force him to get inside that dead fur ball but they also don’t make an excuses. Ree encourages him with the truth that “he’s got a whole bunch of stuff [he’s] goin’ to have to get over bein’ scared of… Harold, you got the sand for this, ain’t you? I’ve always known you to be such a brave little rascal” (107). After Harold is guided into the animal and realizes what he’s doing and that it’s not so terrible as he though, he joins the rank of his brother and they celebrate together running with hands bloodied.

The toughness needed for Harold to gut a squirrel is no different than the toughness Ree needed to take a beating by Mrs. Milton and her sisters. It is a matter of demonstration and code that is purposeful beyond just a display of rugged machismo. This is a point that society in Winter’s Bone operates. These certain kinds of acts are self-affirming  and group-affirming. In a community where everybody know s everyone else and most people are related, image does matter.

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The Evergreen State College
Olympia, Washington

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