By Michael Bouman
Mom read to Chris and me when we were old enough to hear, I think, and Dad told us stories of growing up in a big German family in Minnesota. Ma and Pop-Pop and Aunt Millie and Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Bill all told stories or read to the only children in the family. I guess it's just what adults were supposed to do; that and show children the world.
Pop-Pop couldn't wait to take us into the woods near New Egypt to show us the cold spring where he collected the special drinking water kept in the refrigerator. I suppose that was somewhere in the back of my mind when I enountered that magical opening sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I'll have to paraphrase that sentence; it goes something like, "Years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aurelia Buendia would remember that day his father took him into the jungle to discover ice."
My New Jersey family, Ma and Pop-Pop and Aunt Millie, spoke in a cadence that I later realized carried messages of an older sort of English, rooted in the 18th century settlers in the farmlands near the ocean. They pronounced the name of the town, Forked River, as "Fork-it River." I remember how surprised I was when I first saw that name in print. Mom didn't sound anything like her parents or her step-sisters, Millie and Gertrude. I think she responded to the sounds of the wider world, the sounds of cities, though nothing in her sound resembled Trenton, where she went to college, or New York, where she spent the wonder years immediately after college. Dad, too, didn't sound like the other Boumans from the Midwest, though he grew up with them all, except for the way he rolled the r in "three." Chris and I don't sound like we came from the same household, either, nor much like New Egypt. Our ears feasted on so many ways of speaking the language that we developed some kind of accomodation of all.
Winter's Bone grabbed hold of my ear first of all, and held me by sheer sound while Daniel Woodrell counjured with my imagination for landscape and homescape. When a fine writer takes on a storytelling job involving people who make do with nearly-broken things, you hope and expect that the description of those things will be fresh. It's too easy to write about pickup trucks that seem to go down the road at an angle because the frame is bent. Winter's Bone seems clean of the easy stereotypes of life-on-the-margin. The writing of this story has the feel of a storyteller who really cares about his characters and about the specific details of their lives.
A big part of the appeal of this story is the way Daniel Woodrell cares about the cadence and sound of his characters' speech. He tells the story in their cadence, their vocabulary, so like Nabokov's Lolita, we have a tale that is also very much about the author's "love affair" with the English language. Early in the story, the brothers are introduced with stinking socks as Ree, their 16-year-old sister gets them ready for the walk to their school bus:
Sonny and Harold were eighteen months apart in age. They nearly always went about shoulder to shoulder, running side by side and turning this way or veering that way at the same sudden instant, without a word, moving about in a spooky, instinctive tandem, like scampering quotation marks. Sonny, the older boy, was ten, seed from a brute, strong, hostile, and direct. His hair was the color of a fallen oak leaf, his fists made hard young knots, and he'd become a scrapper at school. Harold trailed Sony and tried to do as he did, but lacked the same sort of punishing spirit and muscle and often came home in need of fixing, bruised or sprained or humiliated.
Harold said, "They don't really stink that bad, Ree"
Sonny said, "Yeah, they do. But it don't matter. They'll be in our boots."
Ree's grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law. There were two hundred Dollys, plus Lockrums, Boshells, Tankerslys, and Langans, who were basically Dollys by marriage, living within thirty miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful kin in a pinch. The rough Dollys were plenty peppery and hard-boiled toward one another, but were unleashed hell on enemies, scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own. Sometimes when Ree fed Sonny and Harold oatmeal suppers they would cry, sit there spooning down oatmeal but crying for meat, eating all there was while crying for all there could be, become wailing little cyclones of want and need, and she would fear for them.
In another scene, Ree has nearly frozen while being made to wait outdoors in a sleet storm. She has gone to the forbidding hamlet of Hawkfall in search of news about her missing father, from a menacing branch of the family, and has been turned away. Walking overland, she comes to caves where some ancestors once sheltered during a time of feuding:
Ree shed her coat, the hooded sweatshirt, the wet skirt. They landed heavily, lumps of fabric clotted with ice. She had a fair pile of punk wood laid in the corner by the stone wall but no kindling, and once in from the weather she was loath to go back into it. It was those brute ancient ways that broke fresh over her world at every dawn and sent Dollys to let the blood drain from Dad's heart and dump his flesh somewhere hidden from path and cloud. Her boots felt stiff as iron but she kept them on. She slid her panties down, stepped out of them, then raised her undershirt overhead and off. Bare skin but for boots she crouched to the woodpile and stuck the dry garments beneath the likeliest charred stubs and hairy clumps. She had one book of matches and half a doobie in the coat. She held her breath while striking a match, carefully touched the flame to an edge of her panties and mercifully they browned fast, then puffed into flame.
The fire seemed to have been waiting to be born for it scooted quickly from flickers to a roaring flame. The flames pulsed and brightened the cave mouth. The light met Ree and glowed on her skin and cast her shadow up. She stamped her feet and stared out from the cave onto a forest vista sunk beneath ice. Some trees sagged near to snapping, some snapped.
You get the feeling at this point that Ree Dolly is going to be one of the trees that does not snap. I read Winter's Bone in two sittings, and could have read it in one if I'd started earlier. I not only cared very much about Ree and her family, I wanted their story to continue beyond the last page of the book. What I know I'll do shortly is go out and buy the other seven novels of Daniel Woodrell.