Sixteen-year-old Rae Dolly is in a serious bind: her meth-dealing father has disappeared and missed an important court date. If Jessup Dolly isn’t located soon, then the family that Rae holds together through sheer will-power will lose their humble Ozark cabin. Although a mountain code binds the Dolly clan in some ways, a brutal undercurrent of reprisal makes it near impossible for Rae to learn the whereabouts of her father. There are some things people just don’t talk about in a community where speed has replaced moonshine as the economic engine and drug of choice. Rae’s father is one of them.
After sustaining a ferocious beating, Rae finally sways her criminal uncle Teardrop over to her side and the novel takes an even darker turn as we head into the mountains in the middle of winter to learn the truth about Rae’s father.
The plot of Winter’s Bone is straightforward and economic, with all the tension of a thriller, as Rae goes from one grim haunt to another asking questions no one wants to answer. In less than two hundred pages Daniel Woodrell’s rich yet gritty prose builds a momentum that is part suspense, part parable. The writing is stripped down and minimalist in places but also functions on a literary level, leaving powerful images rippling in the reader’s mind without getting in the way of Woodrell’s noir narrative. This is no run-of-the-mill page turner. The characters are tough but tender, sympathetic without being sentimental. Rae’s two little brothers and emotionally damaged mother are only two examples of people confined to a world who aren’t stereotypes.
If there’s any criticism of this book, it’s that the storyline is possibly too direct in places, almost predictable, like a mystery where the protagonist is taken through required confrontations and scenes, and readers of the genre might see this as somewhat underdeveloped. But the originality of the writing, authenticity of setting, and the story questions raised more than make up for that. In Winter’s Bone, less is more. Life is unforgiving in Rae’s world but love for family is just as strong, if not stronger.