Winter’s Bone is a pleasing combination of beautifully unusual language and a cast of characters who are not at all stereotyped and feel very realistic to me. The missing-persons plot is just a vehicle to convey a sense of the place and the people who live there. The scene I want to talk about specifically, though, begins on page 115.

In it, Ree goes to a great deal of effort to get her mother out of the house. She helps her up a steep path, through a small copse of pine trees, and eventually to an outcropping at the top of the hill where they watch the sunset together.

The purpose of this outing, as evidenced by the second and final bit of dialogue, is for Ree to try to get through to her mother about their situation. “Please help me,” she says, and I pray for an instant that her mother will respond.

When this scene begins, it feels like a filler episode. Just a few hundred words of fluff to give the reader a break from the action of hunting down people who knew Jessup and interrogating them or getting beat up by them. This scene is supposed to break up the monotony. And it does break up the monotony very well, I was certainly glad for a break and a change of scenery.

But the deeper I got into the scene, the more I realized that it wasn’t just fluff. This is a brief exposition of how very alone Ree is, and how strong. Her father is gone, her mother is barely more than another mouth to feed, and she has to raise her brothers and find her father with all the pressure of potentially losing their house behind her. I had not realized quite the gravity of the situation until this point.

There are bits and pieces of this kind of exposition throughout.

A notable example of this is her trip to see April. She bums a ride on a school bus (an act that would never work in my county, yet another instance that highlights the difference between her upbringing and my rural childhood made positively suburban by contrast), then hitches aboard a delivery truck, and finally walks a distance that feels like several miles to get to her destination with no idea how she’s going to get back.

After spending the night in a goddamn cave I mean come on, she hikes the whole way home and starts dinner like her expedition was nothing. Everyone who tells her to keep her nose out of her dad’s business in this book has underestimated her greatly.

This is a female character who could never be called “whiny.” This is a female character who stands up for herself and her family and even the forest behind her house. Characters like Ree, especially written by male authors, are painfully rare.