Monday, December 3, 2012

Signal Reads: Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell (2006)

I have not seen the film of Winter's Bone, and now it'll be a while longer before I'll feel comfortable watching an adaptation.  I always need some space between the book and the movie or it runs the risk of ruining both for me.

The story, from what I gather, isn't too much changed in the filmed translation, so those of you have seen the movie may not have seen a story that deviates much on plot points.

The novel is set in the near past if the comments made about what's on television are any indication (the book loosely describes characters watching the now-defunct series Wishbone on PBS), located within a few miles of the hilly forests of the Ozarks where the secretive, backwoods families run their business outside of law and society, dealing with each other in brutal fashion.  These days they make and sell crank, but they still spend generation after generation expecting short, ugly lives.

Ree Dolly's father has disappeared, which should be nothing new.  At 16 or 17, she's used to being left to take care of her brothers and mother who has retreated into a shell of mental illness.  The local law comes and informs Ree to find her dad to show for his court date as he's put up the family home and the woods around it as collateral for his bond after his last run in with the law.  It's no secret to Ree that her father was cooking crank and ran outside the law, and so she goes out into the white snow of newly fallen winter in search of the man in order to keep the house and do what she can for her brothers and mother.  The search brings her hard up against the sprawling backhill gangster feudalism so entranched and protected that the few cops don't even really register, and with every question, things go from awful to worse.

In some ways, I don't think I should have liked the book as much as I did.  In structure, it reminded me of too much modern fiction that follows the rules of screenplays and seems readily digestible for a producer to get the hook in the first chapter or two, and I wasn't always sure there was a tremendous amount of depth beneath the plot.  But I am deeply impressed by what Daniel Woodrell accomplished in this book.  The language itself is a phenomenal achievement, from the natural sound of the dialog to the punchy prose descriptions and ability to capture the essence of a sensation or experience in a few short, terse statements without resorting to cliches.  His brief hints of background and history are snap shots rather than a full accounting of an outsider culture just on the edge of polite American society - and it's certain that this world, and a lot more like it, exists just on the periphery.  The environment and characters are clearly defined, and even the most frightening of the characters - powered on crank and booze - makes some sort of sense in Woodrell's hands.

His Ree Dolly is a wonderfully realized character and so much about the character is heartbreaking, knowing that the big chances she sees for herself in life - every single person around her gets something by her staying where she's at - even when the opportunities would be so easily within reach for almost anyone else.

The audiobook was read by Emma Galvin who is absolutely phenomenal.  She's definitely got her ideas for the cast down, and she moves seamlessly from Ree to Gail to Uncle Teardrop and his sparking menace.  Great work.

I saw the book cited as "country noir", and that's as good a category as any.  I'll definitely add more Woodrell to my reading list.

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