4.5 stars“The heart's in it then, spinning dreams, and torment is on the way. The heart makes dreams seem like ideas.” Being familiar with the film adaptation of Winter’s Bone, I had a hunch that I was going to like Daniel Woodrell’s novel, particularly if it turned out that the characters I’d found so compelling on screen were a faithful rendering of their written counterparts. Had I known that I would love Daniel Woodrell’s writing so much, I think I might have sought it out sooner. This is a book I can see myself returning to often, finding something different to examine and admire every time, some new angle from which to appraise it. It’s a book I could open at random and still find a passage or a page striking in its power, even without the context of the larger story surrounding it. Woodrell’s writing is evocative, and he creates a rich sense of place in his prose that permeates the narrative. There’s a chill and a certain harshness ingrained between the words, yet also savage beauty and an acknowledgement, if not a respect, for the strong loyalty and values of a community embattled by poverty and substance abuse. Ree Dolly simultaneously goes head to head with, and also embodies, this rigid (and at times, brutal) moral code. Bearing the brunt of the responsibility for her family’s welfare, Ree is a resolute, strong character, yet also one with depth of emotion and a capacity for compassion. She is the heart of this story, a young woman driven to do what must be done to protect her own. Yet she is more than a stoic figurehead – we see glimpses of her desperation and tenderness, and of her vulnerabilities in several senses of the word. She’s a fierce and sympathetic character, without a doubt one of my favourite literary heroines. Despite the grace of the writing, Woodrell doesn’t romanticise the realities of Ree’s life. The cycle of poverty and violence, the isolation and physical hardships of the winter, as well as the effects of crystal meth production all have a bearing on the story and are presented in stark clarity. This is community in which abuse, misogyny, abandonment form part of the fabric of life – deeply entrenched and perpetuated through generations. Even those who abide by the unwritten laws are not immune from the cruelty of the system – particularly Ree who, as a woman, is often the object of suspicion, blame, even physical harm. Yet Ree navigates this complex and fraught network of clanship and honor and uses it to her advantage, though not without cost to herself.In it’s own way, this is a survival story. Not only of survival in a system of violence, or survival of a family under threat of poverty, but also of survival against the elements and the eponymous winter that is an almost tangible presence throughout novel. Woodrell threads the weather through the novel, both its harshness and its haunting beauty, and it serves to accentuate not only the gothic atmosphere, but the urgency of the plot. Though bleak and somewhat morally ambiguous, this is a story of Ree’s struggle through the season, and of the gift it ultimately grants her. I didn’t expect to love this book, but I do. For all that it’s unsettling and vicious, it’s also beautiful.