Five Star review, originally posted here on May 13, 2016.
This book will knock you on your ass. It is a very harsh story about a very harsh life, beautifully written to draw you into the landscape and make you glad you can close the book and move on and never have to return to such a wretched place. You should read it.
I think it’s just a coincidence, but I have read 4 books in quick succession recently that all had teenaged protagonists going through some rough shit, and all 4 dealt with them very differently:
1. Harry Potter was lighthearted clean fun for all ages (despite a plot that dealt with monsters that suck out your soul, a decade of psychological torture in prison, etc).
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was written with humor that helped the reader understand terrible situations without masking their gravity.
3. Between Shades of Gray dealt with some of the worst horrors one could endure, but somehow viewed them all from behind a veil of innocence that softened some of the harshness.
But Winter’s Bone, the only grown-up book in this succession, is definitely not one for the kiddos, even though Ree, the protagonist, is only seventeen years old. It strips back any sugarcoating or softening and gets straight to business: Life can be pretty fucking tough. The best we can do is be tough right back, and hope to still be standing at the end. Ree is a fantastic vessel for this journey; she’s one of the toughest characters I’ve ever encountered- someone who never backs down, and who will face everything and anything for what is right, and to protect her loved ones. From intense dangerous interactions like facing down a family of meth cooks, to gentle heartbreaking acts like shampooing her incapacitated mother’s hair, Ree goes through more in 1 week than most of us could endure in a lifetime. She’s already been forced to grow up very quickly, somehow emerging strong and good despite being raised in such pretty jacked up circumstances by some pretty jacked up people.
Woodrell’s writing can get a little over the top at times, but for whatever reason this didn’t bother me after the first couple pages. Maybe the gaudy language applying to a decidedly non-gaudy setting helped drive home the fact that even in tough times and places, there is beauty and complexity, and more than meets the eye.