"Winter's Bone": A tough Ozark teen's rough journey

"Winter's Bone"
by Daniel Woodrell
Little, Brown, 193 pp., $22.99

Ree Dolly, the heroine of Daniel Woodrell's luminous new novel, is "brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes ... [standing] tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs."

Fearless and resilient, Ree just wants to keep her hardscrabble Ozark family together long enough to get her two little brothers raised right. Once that's accomplished, she figures, someday she can join the Army, "where you got to travel with a gun and they made everybody help keep things clean."

But it's not easy. Ree's father has taken off, promising to return someday with a fistful of dollars. Her mother's got a tenuous grasp on reality. And no one's anxious to extend a hand of kindness, not even other Dollys.

Then a police officer treks to their isolated home to inform Ree that her father, Jessup, has jumped bail; he's up on charges of cooking meth, apparently the modern version of moonshine in the Ozarks. (Except for a few such details, "Winter's Bone" could be set in another century.) Jessup has put the family shack up as bond. If he doesn't appear for his court hearing — or if Ree can't find his corpse, providing a legitimate reason for his not appearing — the family will lose the house. And so Ree goes questing.

The search doesn't takes her far, physically anyway, but in Ree's world the next valley over might as well be Mars. Among those she encounters: her sad friend (and sometime lover) Gail; the terrifying Uncle Teardrop; and the even more terrifying Thump Milton, "his face a monument of Ozark stone, with juts and angles and cold shaded parts the sun never touched." Ree's experiences with these and other figures are brutal and often gruesome, and the story's end is an eerie surprise.

"Winter's Bone" is compact, atmospheric and deeply felt, drenched in the sights, sounds and smells of the author's native Ozarks. Woodrell's novels (this is the eighth) tap a ferocious, ancient manner of storytelling, shrewdly combining a poet's vocabulary with the vivid, old-fashioned vernacular of the backwoods. They're forces of nature.