A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
One of the hallmarks of an excellent book is that the reader is still thinking of it days or weeks after finishing. This is particularly true of novels, as nonfiction offers new information and theories that often take awhile to digest, even if the subject is familiar. Novels are usually shorter than most nonfiction and as we become enmeshed in the story arc, can pass quickly, so to have one linger is a high compliment.
Woodrell’s novel is one such, which surprised me in a story full of harshness. Set in the Ozark mountains, in the hills and hollows of Missouri, Ree lives with her two elementary school-aged brothers and mother. Her mother has suffered either a nervous breakdown or early onset dementia and spends most of the time in a fog. Ree is in her teens, old enough to drive, but not yet join the army, which she views as a path to escape. Her father lives with the family part of the time, when he’s not away cooking up crystal meth(crank) or shacking up with another woman. At his latest arrest, he put the family home up for collateral to get bail and Ree must locate him before his upcoming court date so the house isn’t taken in forfeit. It’s just a small cabin really, with only a pot-bellied stove for heat, but without it, the family would have nowhere to live. So Ree sets out to find her father and to deliver him to court so that they don’t all become homeless. Going from one relative and acquaintance to another, each one nastier than the last, following rumors and false trails until it culminates in a vicious beating.This leads Ree to an eerie and bizarre encounter and resolution.
Through the whole book I kept railing against the unfairness of one so young being responsible for so much and dealing with serious problems that she didn’t create. In so many instances, she is the stand-in for someone else; her mother, who can’t care for her children, her irresponsible father whose actions have created this crisis, a friend, whose teenage pregnancy and marriage is off to a rocky start.
The ending of the book is very realistic in it’s uncertainty, yet hopefulness. I wondered if Ree does go into the military as soon as possible, what would happen to her little brothers, or for that matter, her mother? Or does she delay her plan until her brothers are more able to care for themselves? If she stays longer, will she avoid the dangers of the crank lifestyle and paying for her father’s actions?
I was startled when I saw this book categorized as Young Adult, it is such a gritty tale. But then the YA titles in my day, which were much fewer, also contained darker novels, such as those of S.E. Hinton.
Another thing which might surprise readers is the depiction of poverty in rural areas, considering our current stereotype of inner cities being the main concentration of poor people. Ree and her family subsist on the irregular gifts from neighbors and relatives, but I was puzzled at the lack of social services, surely they would’ve qualified for government subsidies?
In many ways, this novel could’ve taken place at any time period, only a few mentions of cars and televisions proved it to be in the modern era. The country backdrop is where my ancestors lived and some relatives still do, though in Appalachia, farther north. The title is perfect on many layers, most obviously in conveying the sparse surroundings and bleakness of the season in which it takes place.
It was the excellent reviews of the movie which spurred me to read the book, though I doubt I will ever watch the film after some difficult passages that were already too vivid in writing. The author is a master at channeling the thoughts and feelings of his characters, without passing judgement, leaving that to the reader. There are sparkling sentences and lucid descriptions of places that balances the harshness of the events. This is a very well written book and the uncommon locale makes it something quite different than much in American fiction today, just another reason why it’s definitely worth reading.
Back Bay Books 2010 224 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0316131612 available in ebook and traditional formats