I read Winter's Bone for a book club that I have recently re-joined after roughly four years of absence. I must begin by saying that I perhaps did not understand what I was getting into when I picked up this book. My vague understanding was that we were reading it because it was "spooky, for Halloween." I was incorrect about that--the "spooky" book was the last book we read (ahem, the last book the rest of them read; I didn't so much get to it), which explains my confusion in the early stages of this book. Winter's Bone was not "spooky," but it was "scary" in another way.
It's scary to think that people actually live like this anywhere in the world today, much less in the United States. Throughout the book, I kept thinking, "Now when does this take place?" and was jarred with reality again and again when I realized that it takes place now, here, today, and that while these characters are fictional, the setting is based in reality.
I did not like Winter's Bone. I mean that in a couple of ways. First, Winter's Bone is not the kind of book that anyone is supposed to "like." It's not the type of book that you're mean to sit around comfortable living rooms or coffee shops chatting about, saying, "Oh, did you read Winter's Bone? I just loved it. It was such a nice read." (Which is why I'm alternately fascinated and horrified at the idea of it having been made into a movie starting Jennifer Lawrence. I mean, one one hand, she's proven that she can do uncomfortable and gruesome well. One the other hand, the ads show her wearing a reindeer sweater, for goodness sake.) There is nothing "nice" about this book. It's gritty and uncomfortable and raw. It's meant to take people out of their comfort zones. That's not something you're supposed to "like."
So when I go to Goodreads and see all these 5-star reviews for Winter's Bone, I think what all those people are actually saying is, "I deeply appreciate this writer's craft." But I don't feel like I can really say that either. I do appreciate when Daniel Woodrell was trying to do. And while my primary fare is YA these days, well, darn it, I was an English major and an English teacher, and I do know how to appreciate great literature, even if I don't choose to do it on a daily basis. I read a lot of reviews on Goodreads where people argued over whether or not the characters were true to the Ozarks way of life and speech--but really, that wasn't the problem for me. Overall, it just felt like Woodrell tried a little too hard to be artsy. Like, what was with the part where Ree spent the night in the caves and talked about the entrails of the fish and her ancestors living in the caves? Okay, if you're going to hit me with symbolism, bring it on. But one random chapter in the midst of the misery of her everyday life? Felt like he was trying to hard to sneak in the artsy. And some of his descriptions of the landscapes.... gorgeous prose, but totally out of place with the characters and their thoughts. Too split-personality for me. I get that he as an author can do both, but they didn't jive together.
As a reader, what I really look for in a book is a character that I can connect with. Or, barring that connection--really root for. And I could never feel that for Ree. I understand that she was in a terrible, terrible situation. And I understand that her hardness was born of a life of living that way. I even understand that she was doing the absolute best that she could. Oh, I understand all of that. And I wanted her to succeed. I just didn't actually like her at all. And I feel like that was a failing of Woodrell. I have read plenty of books where I have rooted for completely despicable characters, simply because the author has played upon my emotions. And then there was Ree, who I actually wanted to root for, but I couldn't because in spite of the fact that she had everything going against her, I didn't like her at all. Fail, Daniel Woodrell. The only character that I had any modicum of actual interest in was Gail, who I kept waiting to reappear after she and Ned go back to Frank--but no such luck. Another disappointment.
Overall, this one doesn't make my recommendation list. I'm interested in seeing how the other members of my book club liked it; maybe that will change my opinion a little. We're also going to watch the movie version--review of that to follow.