Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Winter's Bone - Daniel Woodrell

Some years ago, when George Bush Senior was President of America, I remember seeing a news item of a train journey through the Appalacian Mountains giving out sweets and presents around Christmas-time.  I thought then that surely, surely, there could not be that kind of poverty in the USA?  On reading this book, that thought came back to me.

A short book, full of beautiful sentences, about an ugly subject.  And don't bother if you only like light reading, or love stories, or travel adventure; this is a heavy subject.  Ree Dolly, a   teenage girl responsible since the disappearance of her Pa  for two small brothers and a mentally ill mother,  has to prove that her father is dead or the house will be repossessed.  Given that there is nothing on the floor, only tinned spaghetti in the larder and that she has only a long dead grandmother's winter coat to keep out the cold, you can see where this is going.  There is love, but it's certainly not love of extended family, and travel only involves driving unmade country roads in the Ozark Hills of Missouri (mostly at night) looking for clues.  Violent? yes, in part.  Drugs?  well, most of the extended family are hooked on the kind of drugs that Pa had a reputation for making.

Ree's father is a drug chef.  That's how he makes his money despite the fact that their land is covered in old, huge trees that would make them a fortune if they cleared and sold some.  Can't be done.  A great grandfather said the trees were always to stay, so the drugs are cooked, and Pa has already served one long stint in jail.  As the story opens, he has left home and promises to be back real soon.  When the local sheriff tells Ree that her father put up the house and land as a bond (like bail in the UK) when recently arrested, her heart hits her boots.  For there is nothing she can do to raise the kind of money needed to pay that bond if her father does not turn up on the required day for a court appearance.  Who will look after Ma, and the two boys?  And gone too is her dream about leaving all of this poverty behind and joining the army, where you get paid to follow orders, they give you clothes to wear and food in your belly.

Ree needs to find Pa, and quickly.  Everyone she talks to is either related to, or at permanent war with, her side of the family, but whoever she talks to, she's warned off.  With her friend Gail, the mother of a new baby at the wheel of an elderly pick-up truck, she drives the locality, talking and seeking the truth.

It's very black indeed.  It's violent, you can feel the poverty, you can smell it, but you are rooting for Ree all the time.  Daniel Woodrell is a wordsmith and no mistake.  He makes you feel it all, the good and the bad, so wonderfully descriptive is his writing.  How is it that this is the first of his books I have come across?  Come on, let's get him better read!