Tuesday, January 12, 2016

the last book I read

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell.

It's fair to say there are more hospitable places to grow up than the Ozark mountains of Missouri. Not just because of the brutal winters and the general harshness of day-to-day existence, but also the way the isolated communities work - very insular, snooping into other people's business is frowned upon, government and law-enforcement are despised, very male-dominated, everyone has too many guns, drinks too much hooch and is cooking up crank, a ferociously addictive and occasionally explosive home-made form of methamphetamine, on their back porch.

This goes double if you're an intelligent, independent young woman in your late teens like Ree Dolly, since your typical career path would be something like: get inadvertently knocked up in some drunken encounter, shotgun wedding, more kids, mind kids and home while hubby is out dealing crank or in prison.

Ree has some more specific problems of her own at the moment, though: her father Jessup has been up in court for being caught cooking up crank and is due back imminently for a further hearing. It's not exactly the first time this has happened, but it transpires that firstly Jessup has gone missing, and secondly that he put the house in which Ree, her mother and two younger brothers live up as surety for his bail, and so if he doesn't turn up in court the house will be taken and Ree and her family will be homeless.

So Ree decides that she'd better go and ask around and see if she can find out what has happened to her father. This is more problematic than it sounds for a number of reasons. Firstly, Ree is effectively the head of the household in Jessup's absence (and he is invariably absent) because her mother is no longer quite the full ticket (for ill-defined reasons) and tends to just sit around watching the TV or staring into space all day. So Ree is effectively bringing up the boys, which she does by teaching them important life skills like how to shoot a shotgun and gut and skin a squirrel. The other problem is that "asking around" about pretty much anything can get you beaten up or shot in the Missouri Ozarks, especially when it's connected with obviously criminal activity that some of the people you're talking to will also be involved in. Sure enough after a few dead ends, including scary unpredictable crank-crazed Uncle Teardrop, Jessup's brother, and a few dire warnings not to pursue her enquiries, Ree winds up on the doorstep of Thump Milton, nth cousin and feared family patriarch, and is the recipient of a fearsome beating at the hands of some of his womenfolk.

Time is starting to run out, and Ree is increasingly convinced that Jessup is dead. Trouble is, even if he is, she'll have to prove it to the cops' satisfaction in order to escape having the house repossessed. Eventually, satisfied that she isn't about to snitch to the cops, certain family members decide to take pity on her and give her what she needs. Jessup, it turns out, not wanting to go down for a long stretch, had decided to snitch on some of his counterparts himself, some of them family, and brutal retribution was exacted. Some of the same Milton women who gave Ree the kicking earlier take her off to a remote lake where Jessup's body is submerged, roped to an engine block, and kindly assist her in sawing his hands off so they can be presented to the police as proof of death.

Winter's Bone is probably most famous for the multiply-Oscar-nominated film based on it that was released in 2010 (the book was published in 2006) starring the lovely Jennifer Lawrence as Ree. I haven't seen the film, but (from what I've seen) apart from changing the gender of one of Ree's younger siblings and reducing the amount of snow it looks like a pretty faithful adaptation of the book. And why wouldn't it be, as it's a ruthlessly spare 190-odd pages with barely a word wasted, and with an intensely appealing central character. That's not to say that it's flawless - the first half is better than the second, largely because Ree has more to do in the first half. Once she's been incapacitated by a near-fatal beating a lot of the second half of the book consists of her being driven around (sometimes wuzzy and half-asleep on turbo-painkillers) and shown things by various people, which drives the plot along and all but isn't as satisfying as her doing things for herself. I suppose one might also say the happy-ish ending is slightly unexpected after the fairly relentless bleakness that's gone before it, but the book has done a good enough job of making you root for Ree that it just about works.

These are minor quibbles, though, and I wouldn't want you to think I'm not recommending the book, because I most definitely am. There's more than an echo of Cormac McCarthy about it in the sparseness of the language and the violence, though without most of McCarthy's signature stylistic tics.

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