A stoical Appalachian girl strives to rescue her family from her father’s criminal legacy in Woodrell’s bleak, mean, gripping eighth novel.
In Missouri’s Rathlin Valley near the Arkansas border, “crank” cooker and dealer Jessup Dolly has jumped bail, leaving his 16-year-old daughter Ree to look after her younger brothers and their helpless Mom, once a spirited beauty, now a passive recluse sunk in the dreamy recesses of her “broken” mind. If Jessup doesn’t return for trial, his family will be evicted, their land sold for timber, and they’ll find shelter only among the hillside caves where generations of itinerant ancestors weathered their passage to settlement, led by their hardbitten patriarch Haslam. An Old Testament harshness and spareness indeed shadow this grim tale, as Ree seeks her father, dead or alive, aided by her childhood friend (and sometime lover), unhappily married Gail Langan. It’s an odyssey rich with echoes of Inman’s journey in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, the homicidal poetry of Cormac McCarthy’s tense narratives (with random bits and snatches of Elmore Leonard and Harry Crews), as Ree doggedly perseveres, querying her sullen and inscrutable Uncle Teardrop, her wrathful kinsman Thump Milton and his menacing passel of gun-toting cronies and combative womenfolk—considering the increasingly likely possibility that Jessup had “turned snitch” and met his fate at the hands of his former accomplices. The truth both endangers Ree’s life and sets her free, in a coiled-spring narrative whose precisely honed prose vibrates with arresting descriptive phrases (“Houses above look caught on the scraggly hillsides like combs in a beard and apt to fall as suddenly”) and unsparing doom-laden pronouncements (“Either he stole or he told. Those are the things they kill you for”). And the unforgettable Ree is a heroine like no other.
Every bit as good as Woodrell’s icy The Death of Sweet Mister (2001)—in other words, about as good as it gets.