There's plenty that could be said in praise of this book. The innate code of honor that rules the characters echoes (albeit more starkly) heartland poet Bruce Spingsteen's "Highway Patrolman
":Me and Franky laughin' and drinkin' nothin' feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria as the band played "Night of the Johnstown Flood"
I catch him when he's strayin' like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain't no good
Author Daniel Woodrell's prose is spare but rich, memorable particularly in his use of active metaphor:Fading light buttered the ridges until shadows licked them clean and they were lost to nightfall.
Most remarkable and notable to me in all this was the way that the characters were drawn in connection to the Ozark country, sculpted out of its mud like Adam and Eve or out of its brush like Ask and Embla. It's not just a backdrop or a even home; these hills are what these Dollys are made of. Early on, this description of heroine Ree Dolly's mad mother is grabbing:"...you could see she'd once been as comely as any girl that ever danced barefoot across this tangled country of Ozark hills and hollers. Long, dark, and lovely she had been, in those days before her mind broke and the parts scattered and she let them go."
Gone to the wind, among those caves that Ree takes up in for shelter on a trek to save her family from the Law, I imagined. The landscape shapes their loyalties, the bonds of extended family not being strong enough to bridge the alliances limited not just to state, region, or county but to a single valley. The Bromont-Dolly family's one legal resource, their old-growth timber acres, is off limits because it is rooted to who they are:"...all the old-growth timber was much coveted by sneaking men with saws. If sold, the timber could fetch a fair pile of dollars, probably, but it was understood by the first Bromont and passed down to the rest that the true price of such a sale would be the ruination of home..."
As Ree struggles with challenges above the carrying capacity of many of us, and certainly a sixteen-year-old, her inner processes often take her away physically, fantasizing about an ocean far away, while likening stresses to the more familiar "crumbling away inside like mud banks along a flood stream".
By the end, having survived, Ree no longer plans to flee to the army and "places we wouldn't be"
as brother Harold puts it; she finds beauty in the winter instead of agony. But if her last words are any indication, they may not be there forever.
I can't help but see something biographical in this human-land connection that Woodrell builds. He grew up in the Ozarks and through the Marines and college, spent many years away. But then he returned. Does he want Ree to skip the middle-time? And is he writing this story for people like her, or for the people he met when he went away, to explain why he had to go back?