It’s not really fair to call Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell, a controversial book. It did well and received positive reviews, and the independent film made from it did extraordinarily well, winning awards and high praise from many corners. But, for those who live in the Ozarks, or come from the Ozarks, “controversial” seems a small word.
The book is set in the Missouri Ozarks, outside fictional towns somewhere in southwest Missouri, near the Arkansas border. Woodrell is credited with the term “country noir,” and this book is a fine example. It is dark, almost unrelentingly so, with bleak landscapes, terrifying people, an often helpless protagonist and no hope for the future. This is the book’s strength; as many noir fans know, this sort of bleakness gives noir works both weight and a backdrop from which to explore less-than-simple morality and motivation.
The plot is very straightforward: 16-year-old Ree Dolly has to find her dad, missing for months, before her family of two wayward boys and one catatonic mother lose their drafty shack to a bail bondsman. She suspects he is dead, but she still goes looking in the places she knows he may go.
Familial identity is a heavy theme, though more toward the negative aspects such as open hostility and violence to strangers, or even distant family members, and a reluctant sense of responsibility toward close family members. To describe this as family loyalty may be willful misinterpretation on the part of the author, though, because the extended family is also a gigantic criminal enterprise, the male members being meth makers, to a man, and the female members supporting them, with the possible exception of Ree.
Outsiders are greeted with shotguns in hand, and officers of the law are met with open contempt and angry defiance. The men all purposefully share a handful of first names, destined from birth to thwart the law and confound outsiders. This is a world where Ree has many enemies, even though she is related to nearly every character.
This is not a detective novel with a clever or resilient protagonist, adept maneuvering or thoughtful insight. Ree’s skills consist mostly of walking and taking physical punishment without complaint—a dour hero for a dour novel. One criticism brought up by book club members was that Ree seems insufficiently motivated to endure the difficulties she endures without so much as a grumble. The reader is expected to accept her as a bulldog of a person, obstinately stubborn by her nature.
For the most part, members of the 's Book Club liked the novel, appreciating the view into an isolated subculture, the heavy noir feel, the characterizations and the sparse plot. There was one glaring exception, though, in the form of this writer. I have family from the Ozarks and visit there often, and I complained incessantly and vociferously about how this novel misrepresents every aspect of Ozarks culture, from the alien dialect, to the morals and mores, to the specific cultural markers.
I complained about the depiction of meth production as being ubiquitous and accepted, when it is despised universally in the religiously conservative Ozarks (even though meth labs are becoming more common across the area; it’s not a fictional problem, just a fictional representation). I railed against Ree risking rape every time she visited an uncle, as if rape and incest were de regueur in southwest Missouri.
I groused about everyone answering the door with a shotgun in hand, where in my experience they usually have cornbread or a TV remote. My fellow club members suffered my criticisms patiently, as they so often do; I have, to my surprise, become the de facto curmudgeon of the group.
Our group dynamic is reflective of the larger responses by readers of this book. The book is very controversial in the Ozarks itself, and Woodrell is viewed by many as an outsider who is abusing his adopted culture for profit (despite being described as an Ozark native in marketing materials, a closer look reveals he was born there but moved away as a young child, and back well into adulthood).
I must admit it says something that people who do not come from the Ozarks seem to like the book rather well, finding the cultural depiction fascinating, while those of us with Ozark roots have such a problem with the horrible depiction of Ozark life that we find it difficult to appreciate the book’s strengths.
Controversial is too small a word.
Next month we set across the sea to Paris, and the rarified culture of the Parisian elite, as observed upon by their not-so-humble concierge; we discuss the hit book The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. See our website, rhml.lib.mo.us, for details. The Richmond Heights Memorial Library Book Club meets the first Tuesday of each month, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., at , 8001 Dale Ave. Please join us!