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.”



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.