Woodrell writes a searing account of sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly’s commitment to family, the blood running through her veins tying her to kin and lifestyle, a code of silence that has defined generations who live in the Ozarks. Following Ree from the realization that her father, Jessup, has put up the family’s home and wooded acreage as bond to the court to the certainty that all will be forfeit when he fails to return, a decision made of need turns dark and dangerous when Ree decides to find Jessup - or his body - to keep a roof over her mother and brothers’ heads.
Sonny and Harold have only known want, such young boys’ spirits too often twisted by lack before the faint shadow of adolescence touches their chins, “wailing little cyclones of want and need and she would fear for them.” A girl carrying a man’s burden, Ree begins her quest fully cognizant of the consequences, meeting every kind of resistance along the way by those who place a high value on minding one’s own business: “Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.” Even approaching her extended Dolly relatives carries risk, the stirring of mistrust, violence never far from men and women as resolute as the icy terrain they inhabit as winter sets into Rathlin Valley.
Woodrell’s prose carries its power loosely like the punch of a fist pulled back - although there are plenty of punches and kicks unleashed before Ree’s search is finished. We sense this threat from the moment of Ree’s decision, irritating her already irascible uncle Teardrop, with his fearsome scarred face, meth-laced breath and inclination toward brutality. Jessup is a talented crank cook in a valley where subsistence comes from activities outside the law, drugs replacing moonshine and smothering the valley with the detritus of chemical destruction.
The reader is witness to the impossible task of finding a man who does not want to be found, sufficient reason in this place to wall off the seeker from any truth that might be shared. In the hardest of places, Jessup’s girl is faced with even more devastation in her young life, an escape to the army an impossible dream in the face of eviction and a dependent family. Deliberately and with the courage of her commitment to the future, Ree intrudes where she is not welcome, stares into the indifferent faces of men deaf to pleas and women quick to stomp threat from the flashing eyes of intruders.
This harrowing landscape is peopled with characters best hinted at and not met, linked by place and blood, a long tradition of silence and swift justice for outsiders. Ree is not an outsider to all but prods old grudges and an atavistic instinct to protect one’s own, the ministrations of her childhood friend, Gail, near the only affection Ree can count on. Love exists here, but in a different permutation than the voyeurism modern technology allows, brutality cloaked in glamour and poverty deemed shameful. It is easy to dance with the devil until a writer like David Woodrell reveals the true nature of life on life’s terms in a place where the shadows of the old strangle the vanity of the new, as unimpeachable as it is tragic, where even kindness carries a terrible price.