Everyone was talking about the film a few months ago, but I wanted to read the book first. It starts with a chilling scene: Ree Dolly, in thin cotton dress and combat boots standing on the front steps buffetted by the wind of an approaching snowstorm, staring at deer carcasses hanging from trees across the creek. The meat belongs to relatives who may or may not share it with sixteen-year-old Ree and her two younger brothers. In any case, the children won't ask for it, but will instead make do with grits.
This is not a scene from one of Margaret Bourke-White's Depression-era photos of poverty in the rural South. This is the present-day in the Ozarks where drugs are everywhere and many children are “dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean.” There may be two hundred Dollys and even more other kin within thirty miles of their valley, but Ree is on her own when it comes to protecting her family. Her mother is sunk in dementia while her father, Jessup, has gone off when the walnuts were falling, without leaving money, food, or a woodpile for winter, telling Ree to look for him when she sees him.
Woodrell's economical prose captures life in this remote valley without sentimental hand-wringing, with just the calm clarity of purpose that moves Ree through her day. He summons characters with a single sentence: “Jessup was a broken-faced, furtive man given to uttering quick pleading promises that made it easier for him to walk out the door and be gone, or come back inside and be forgiven.”
When Jessup last walked out the door, he was out on bail from his latest arrest for cooking crank. The local deputy, whose wife went to school with Ree's mother, shows up at the cabin to inform Ree that Jessup's court date is in a week. Ree isn't concerned until the deputy tells her that Jessup put the house and land up for his bond, so if he doesn't show up in court, the place will be sold out from under them.
Ree's search for her father leads her to various places, to people who might be kin but are as likely to shoot you as look at you. Help is rare, squeezed out of these rocky lives, but all the more welcome when it comes, unexpected and hard to recognise. There are slanting references to the family's distant past: a charismatic preacher and a reckoning that tore the family apart into today's mistrustful schisms, references that add what Tolkein called “shimmer” to the icy hills and creek-cut valleys.
I fell into Ree's life with the first sentence and didn't emerge until the last page. This is the great gift of fiction: it enables us to inhabit someone else's life. I might have thought Woodrell exaggerated the poverty, the careless disregard for children's welfare, if I hadn't read Jeannette Walls's extraordinary memoir, The Glass Castle.
This weekend's unseasonably early snowfall only made the book that much more appropriate. We are so protected. Whatever hardships we face—and we all face hardships—they are nothing compared to the bleak poverty portrayed in this novel. Now I'm ready to see the film.