Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ree Dolly, my hero

When a book keeps you up all night thinking about it after you've finished reading it, it has to be a powerful book.  This book by Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone, scared the bejeezus out of me, as one of his characters might say, and I couldn't go to sleep till after midnight, worrying about the characters.  And not just because it's "noir":  it's because it's "country noir," as one reviewer put it.  It situates the violence and darkness not in its usual urban environment, but in my home:  the rural South.

OK, so Faulkner depicted a lot of violence and darkness in the rural South too. What else is new? Well, the setting here is the rural South, circa early 21st century, a bit closer to home for me than the Mississippi Delta in 1910 or 1830. And I'm sorry to say that the villains are instantly recognizable. They are the men who used to make moonshine in the past and have now diversified, first into marijuana growing, a fairly harmless pursuit in the seventies, and now into the cooking of meth, or crank, as it's called in the Ozarks apparently. We still mostly call it meth in the Upper Cumberland.  A few years ago it was a huge problem here.  Young people were losing their teeth over it, and losing custody of their small children.  But fortunately for us, Mexicans started making meth better and cheaper, and those "jobs" went south over the border, like the jobs in the shirt factories that used to be here.

In Winter's Bone, Daniel Woodrell makes the world of white rural poor people very vivid and exact, down to the last detail, of the interiors of their houses for example:  the old woodstoves, the guns lying casually on the kitchen table next to bags of pot and crank, the inherited old clothes, the cut-off shirt sleeves, the junk food bought as cheaply as possible,  and the still-useful relics of an older, more self-reliant past like a wooden "skinning board" for skinning squirrels.  He is also very good at describing the way beaten-up poor people look:  the missing ears and teeth and fingers, the limps caused by gunshot wounds, the pallor caused by days and nights of living on drugs, beer and cigarettes.  Even the smells of people--the bail bondsman smells "like town"-- are instantly believable.  His transcription of their speech is dead-on.  This is what makes or breaks a novel about the South, I think:  the writer's ability to remember and transcribe the unique  speech patterns and vocabulary of Southerners, which varies a lot regionally.  Flannery O'Connor was a past master of this, as was, of course, Faulkner.  But it's not that easy to do without sounding condescending, as if you are writing "dialect."  Woodrell never condescends.  His third-person narrator's voice participates in this voice too, so as not to distance itself too much from the main character, Ree Dolly.

And what a character she is.  She is absolutely, totally real and memorable.  She was the one I stayed up late worrying about.  She is a teenager when the events of the story happen, but she has already had to assume responsibility for feeding and caring for her two little brothers and her mother, who has gone crazy.  Her crank-cooking dad is absent, run off to escape prison.  The family home, inherited by her mother, has been put up by her dad for his bail bond.  So she has to find him, make him appear in court, or prove he's dead.

This task takes her on an odyssey through her broken-down neighborhood, meeting scary character after scarier character, like that baby bird in Are You My Mother?  She seems as vulnerable as that baby bird, only she's looking for her no-good daddy, ironically to bring him to justice to save the family home place.  The bad guys she meets are mostly men.  Her own uncle is one of the scariest.  Frequently these encounters lead to a slapping at the least; once she's knocked down some stairs; always she's threatened and told not to ask so many questions.  Her courage in persisting in this do-or-die effort to save her home, the ancient trees on the hill above it, her crazy mother, and her not-yet-mean little brothers is both admirable and reckless.  And people tell her so.  But she seems to feel she has no choice but to risk venturing into the dens of these crank crooks, asking them, in effect, if they have killed her father or know where he is hiding.

The fact that in the end she doesn't give up or die trying means that this is a novel where things mostly end happily, rather than real life, where it's just one thing after another with no real denouement.  In real life she would have gotten scared off; there would be no real resolution to the mystery of what happened to her father; she would join the Army, and her brothers would be adopted by a relative, her mother dropped off at the local mental institution.  To Woodrell's credit, for a while it seems as if this might be the way it ends.  But again, this is art, not life, and something like a satisfying victory is achieved, although the reader knows it's fragile.

You can't help admiring this amazing young woman and her sheer physical courage, tenacity, stubbornness, endurance, and all-round know-how:  she can shoot a squirrel out of a tree and skin it; she splits wood expertly; she negotiates with the bail bondsman.  It's all the more gratifying to think that a man wrote this wonderful portrait of a young woman; it's not a woman writer fantasizing about what she would have liked to have been.  When I was a little girl, I loved the Caddie Woodlawns and Pippi Longstockings of my fiction world: the strong, independent little tomboys.  Ree Dolly is a more realistic, grown-up, contemporary version of those little girls:  Pippi grown up not just to lift horses onto a porch, but to fight hardened, ruthless, meth-addicted rednecks.  And win.

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