Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly stands on the front porch of her house in Rathlin Valley, Missouri, looking out at meat carcasses hanging from the trees in the Ozark mountain yards of her neighbors and relatives. She can smell snow approaching, and considers how she’ll prepare her home for the oncoming storm.
From the novel’s first pages, we see how Ree’s entire life—young though she is—revolves around providing for her family and ensuring they are able to survive in the harsh landscape of the Ozarks.
Ree thinks of how her father, Jessup, didn’t split enough wood for a strong fire before he left home several weeks ago, and he certainly didn’t leave enough food or money. He promised to return soon with both cash and “a trunkload of delights,” but has not made himself seen or heard since departing.
Jessup, though absent throughout the novel, is a constant presence in Ree’s mind. From the start, she struggles to understand how he could have abandoned his family without the means to provide for themselves and lied about his impending return.
Ree’s younger brother Harold emerges from the house wearing long johns. He stands with Ree and looks out at the carcasses, wondering if their cousin Blond Milton will bring some meat over for them to eat later. Harold suggests they go to him and ask for some. Ree grabs Harold’s ear and twists, and tells him “Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.” She then sends Harold back inside to eat grits—the only food they have left.
Ree, already stepping into the role of primary provider and caretaker at just sixteen, works hard to instill in her brothers values of pride, independence, and self-sufficiency. Though her extended family is capable of help, Ree does not want her brothers to grow up thinking they are owed any kind of debt or special treatment.