At the heart of Winter’s Bone is the question of who, truly, is in charge of the Ozark underworld. While it seems at first that men are the ones in power in the Dolly clan and the clans that comprise their many extended relations, it becomes clearer to the reader as the novel progresses that the women, too, wield a quiet and dangerous power.
Ree is, for all intents and purposes, the matriarch of her own family, and mother-figure to her younger brothers. She is strong, capable, and independent. She is a survivalist, and her headstrong ways both help and harm her as the novel unfolds. On the one hand, she knows the fearsome power and dangerous doings that define much of her extended family; on the other, she is desperate to save herself, her mother, and her brothers, and she wants, in some ways, to break the cycle of silence and male domination that surrounds her. By going into the homes of people who frighten her, of people who don’t take her seriously, and of people who intend to mislead, deceive, and even harm her, Ree proves her strength and worth.
It’s Thump Milton’s wife, Merab, and her sisters who perpetrate the violent attack against Ree that forms a huge part of the novel’s emotional climax. And it is the Thump women, too, who eventually bring Ree to the frozen pond where Jessup’s body lies buried beneath the ice. The women in Winter’s Bone are agents both of the most devastating violence against Ree and, in the end, the greatest service to her. The double-edged power that the Thump women possess speaks to Woodrell’s vision of a community so entrenched in its customs and traditions that it’s unable to see the ways in which things actually unfold, and which individuals are actually the arbiters of action, vengeance, justice, and even charity.
In choosing for his main character a young woman, Woodrell creates a protagonist who seems to have the odds stacked against her, but who rises to meet her fate with a kind of courage and resolve not demonstrated by any other character in the novel—especially any of the men. By the novel’s end, Ree has made herself not just known, but both unforgettable and sympathetic to several members of her extended family. She cements her place as a provider and an agent of change when she brings Jessup’s hands to the law and, in return, is allowed to keep her home and her land. The novel ends on a note of hope, as Ree tells her younger brothers that she plans to use the extra bond money given to her to procure a set of “wheels,” a literal vessel—a vehicle—that might give her mother, her brothers, and herself all an opportunity for movement and freedom such as they’ve never seen or experienced.
Women and Matriarchy ThemeTracker
Women and Matriarchy Quotes in Winter’s Bone
“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?”
“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!”
“Somethin’ real wrong was goin’ on, and since then I’ve gone over it and over it in my head and think I finally get why he didn’t even nod my way. He was protectin’ me, see, by ignorin’ me. That’s when I understood your dad had loved me. I understood it from how he’d looked away.”
“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.”
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.”