Family is paramount in the Ozark community of Woodrell’s novel—blood ties are shown to carry a weight that is at various turns burdensome, protective, and redemptive. Ree Dolly clings to the idea that blood is “s’posed to mean somethin’,” to provide her with leverage and immunity against those who might otherwise harm her, her mother, or her brothers. Ree knows that she is bound inextricably to her family, and that her future, as well as her brothers’, will be determined by the bonds of loyalty and duty that define the Dolly clan. Ree even tells the bondsman, Mike Satterfield, who comes looking for her father that she is a Dolly, “bred and buttered.” The idea that being a Dolly denotes a certain set of values—independence, resilience, loyalty—is one that Ree holds on to, and one that she knows the locals and the law know well, too.
Ree teaches her younger brothers Sonny and Harold how to make deer stew, how to shoot a gun, and how to hunt for squirrels to use as meat. She is desperate, at times, to pass onto them the bits of knowledge that might mean the difference between life and death in the event of her disappearance, ailment, or absence. The idea that they stand only to inherit what Ree can give to them weighs heavily on her, and deepens the atmosphere of dark destiny that seeps through the novel.
The boys and men of the Dolly clan, Ree knows, are named at birth for what their roles within the family will be. In order to keep out of sight of the law, and to confuse those who might attempt to harm, trespass, or “keep accounts” against the Dolly clan, the overwhelming majority of men born into the family are named, over and over again, either Milton, Haslam, Arthur, or Jessup. “To have but a few male names in use,” Woodrell writes, “was a tactic held over from the olden knacker ways.” Each first name serves as a sort of code for what the man’s role in the clan will eventually be, and what duties will fall to him. “Some names,” Ree observes, “could rise to walk many paths in many directions, but Jessups, Arthurs, Haslams, and Miltons were born to walk only the beaten Dolly path.” Ree wants for her brothers to be able to live lives free of crime and duty, able to “rise” to meet new paths. Their inheritance, though, of a tradition of dangerous and nefarious “bloodline customs” becomes more palpable to Ree with nearly every passing day, and as the threat of the repossession of her home and her land looms larger and larger.
As Ree’s journey into the heart of the Ozarks stretches on, she is confronted with the dark side of unquestioned loyalty; there are costs to living in this world, and Ree learns them when she pursues information from the secretive, volatile Thump clan. In the wake of her attack at their hands, Ree’s loyalty to her own family—her mother and her brothers—does not waver, but the sense that the bonds of loyalty between Dollys, Thumps, and the other clans that make up the Ozark landscape is more of a prison than a safety net sharpens in Ree’s mind. At the end of the novel, the surprise of the surplus bond money and the promise it holds seems to be an opportunity for Ree to break the cycle of dark destiny and dangerous inheritance that’s imprisoned her family for centuries.
Family, Destiny, and Inheritance ThemeTracker
Family, Destiny, and Inheritance Quotes in Winter’s Bone
Ree’s grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives outside square law…The rough Dollys were scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own.
Ree nearly fell but would not let it happen in front of the law. She heard thunder clapping between her ears and Beelzebub scratchin’ a fiddle. The boys and her and mom would be dogs in the field without this house. They would be dogs in the field with Beelzebub scratchin’ out tunes and the boys’d have a hard hard shove toward unrelenting meanness and the roasting shed and she’d be stuck along side them ‘til steel doors clanged shut and the flames rose. She’d never have her own concerns.
“Didn’t want you-all to fear we’d forgot you for good.”
“Don’t you, nor nobody else, neither, ever go down around Hawkfall askin’ them people shit about stuff they ain’t offerin’ to talk about. That’s a real good way to end up et by hogs, or wishin’ you was… Our relations get watered kinda thin between this valley here and Hawkfall.”
“He cooks crank.”
“Honey, They all do now. You don’t even need to say it out loud.”
“It’s been this way with our people forever, goddam it. For-fuckin’-ever. You go see Thump. Go up there’n knock gentle on his door, and wait.”
“Ma’am, I got a real bad need to talk with Thump Milton…I need to, I really, really need to, ma’am. Please—I am a Dolly! Some of our blood at least is the same. That’s s’posed to mean somethin’—ain’t that what is always said?”
To have but a few male names in use was a tactic held over from the olden knacker ways…Let any sheriff or similar nabob try to keep official accounts on the Dolly men when so many were named Milton, Haslam, Arthur or Jessup… Jessups, Arthurs, Haslams and Miltons were born to walk only the beaten Dolly path, live and die in keeping with those bloodline customs fiercest held.
“You son of a bitch. You go straight to hell’n fry in your own lard. Sonny’n Harold’ll die livin’ in a fuckin’ cave with me’n Mom before they’ll ever spend a single fuckin’ night with you. Goddam you, Blond Milton, you must think I’m a stupid idiot or somethin’—there’s horseweed standin’ chin-high inside that place!”
“Mom, I’m goin’ to need you to help. There’s things happenin’ that I don’t know what to do about. Mom? Look at me, Mom. Mom?” Ree waited kneeling for several minutes, kneeling as raised hopes fell to modest hopes, slight hopes, vague hopes, kneeling until any hope at all withered to none…She released Mom, stood and walked away into the shadows.
“I got two little brothers who can’t feed theirselves…My mom is sick and she is always goin’ to be sick. Pretty soon the laws’re takin’ our house away n’throwin’ us out…to live in the fields…like fuckin’ dogs. The only hope I got to keep our house is I gotta prove Dad’s dead. Whoever killed him, I don’t need to know that. I don’t never need to know that. If Dad did wrong, Dad has paid. But I can’t forever carry…them boys’n Mom…not…without that house to help.”
“You own me now. Understand? You purty much own me now, girl. You do wrong, it’s on me. You do big wrong’n it’s me that’ll pay big.”
“We’ll carry you to your daddy’s bones, child. We know the place.”
Sonny said,“What’ll we do with all that money? Huh? What’s the first thing we’ll get?”
…Ree stood and stretched. Twilight dimmed the snow, but icicles overhead held that gleam. “Wheels.”