by Carla Kirchner
The United States and the world at large were first introduced to the Ozarks in literature through Harold Bell Wright’s wildly popular novel, The Shepherd of the Hills. Though often too simplistic, didactic, and sentimental for modern readers, Wright’s 1907 work was highly admired by readers at the time of publication and popularized the Ozarks Mountains area as a tourist destination. Although much has been written about the region since Wright’s success, many of these works assume the backwoods hillbilly stereotype or the Arcadian myth and romanticize the “simple” Ozarks’ inhabitants. Even contemporary scholarship on the area is sparse. In Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image, historian Brooks Blevins notes that little ethnographic work has been done since folklorist Vance Randolph’s 1930’s books painted the Ozarks as “the most backward and deliberately unprogressive region in the United States” and its people as differing “widely from the average urban American” (Randolph qtd. in Blevins 2). One answer to this incomplete picture of the region comes from novelist Daniel Woodrell’s work, which offers contemporary versions of both the Ozarks and Ozarkers.
Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, popularized by the award-winning film of the same title, is perhaps his best-known work. Among his various awards are the Pen West Award for fiction, a nomination for a 2008 Edgar Award, and the 2011 Clifton Fadiman Medal from the Center for Fiction. His most recent novel, The Maid’s Version, was long listed for the 2015 Dublin Literary Award. Five of his nine novels have been selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year, leading critic John Williams to call Woodrell “one of the best-kept secrets in American literature.” Five of Woodrell’s novels are set in the Ozarks. Give Us a Kiss (1996), Tomato Red (1998), and The Death of Sweet Mister (2001) are often called his Ozarks Trilogy. The action of Winter’s Bone (2006) and The Maid’s Version (2013) is also located in the region. Each novel takes place in or around the town of West Table, Missouri, a setting based on Woodrell’s real-life home of West Plains. While Woodrell’s popular Renee Shade detective series is set in what Woodrell calls a “fictional bayou sort of place . . . elastic enough in its fictional origins that I could have anything I wanted to happen there” (“Daniel Woodrell Interview Part 1of 3”), Woodrell says that upon his return to the Ozarks, he found himself “writing about a region that does exist, only the name of the town has changed and that’s just . . . to protect the sensibilities of all the other residents” (“Daniel Woodrell Interview Part 1of 3”).
West Table is a town of a little over 10,000 residents located “twenty miles north of the Arkansas line in the bull’s-eye heart of the Ozarks” (Woodrell, Give 4). It is a staunchly conservative place with fundamentalist Christian roots; however, Woodrell’s works do not contain the heavy Christian themes of Wright’s The Shepherd of the Hills. Instead, Woodrell writes about a darker, law-breaking, drug-taking place. Author Lin Waterhouse claims Woodrell is the “voice of the other Ozarks” because his work “doesn’t speak for the shepherd of the hills or for devout church social ladies or for thundering evangelists” (34). Instead, as Waterhouse notes, Woodrell’s Ozarks is best summed up by Doyle Redmond, protagonist in Woodrell’s Give Us a Kiss: “Back behind the smiles and homespun manners, and classic American hokum, there’s a whole ‘nother side of life, a darker, semi-lawless, hillbilly side” (5).
While Woodrell’s novels do not illuminate all sides of life in West Table, his plots and characters are based on fact—on neighbors, on events he witnesses from his window, and, most importantly, on the Ozarks itself. Woodrell’s work is interesting and compelling because it is based on the realities of the region. Ozark residents live surrounded by ridges and hills; their speech, traditions, and desires are shaped by these hills and the isolation they create. “The Ozarks were founded by people who basically wanted to be left alone,” Woodrell told Waterhouse. “There’s a strong sense of that still left alive. Mind your own business. Whatever we’re doing on our land is our business.” Ozarkers are strongly connected to this land, a connection clearly evident in Woodrell’s works. It is this connection that is the driving force in his novels and that makes the West Table area more than just setting. The Ozarks shapes and directs life in Give Us a Kiss, Tomato Red, The Death of Sweet Mister, Winter’s Bone, and The Maid’s Version. In Woodrell’s work, the region is a living, breathing entity that both punishes and comforts his characters. His Ozarks is a character with a long personal history, an insistence on the importance of family, a complicated personality, a distinctive voice, and a strong spiritual bent.
The Ozarks’ Pervasive Past
“The mountains are among the oldest on the planet, worn down to nubs, stubborn knobs,” Doyle Redmond says in Give Us a Kiss (3). In his book The Ozarks: Land and Life, geographer Milton Rafferty notes the Ozarks region has a “peculiar” resistance to change (275). Woodrell echoes Rafferty’s claims; his work indicates that even today, time often stands still in the Ozarks.
That the first seven pages of Give Us a Kiss detail the Ozarks region and its past indicates setting plays a large role in the novel and that the past is always present in the Ozarks. Doyle Redmond, protagonist and narrator of this novel, is a man trying unsuccessfully to escape his past. Doyle writes crime novels and supports his writing life by dope dealing and petty thievery. Doyle fears it is his past and his penchant for fighting and law-breaking behavior that prevents him from getting a tenured university position: “My mammy dropped me in the Ozarks,” Doyle says, “and I’m an Ozarker wherever life takes me” (94). After inhabiting the fringes of California literary circles for several years, Doyle returns to his homeland, but Doyle’s past always looms in his memory, just as the “Ozark mountains seem to hunker instead of tower” (Give 3).
Shuggie Atkins, pudgy thirteen-year-old narrator and protagonist in The Death of Sweet Mister, is a city boy who lives with his mother in a small house on the grounds of the West Table Cemetery. As Shug mows the cemetery plots and performs the routine maintenance that pays the rent, he cannot help but notice that the past surrounds him: “The dead had been coming to West Table cemetery for over a hundred years, since names like Zebediah, Aquillah, and Verity and Permelia had been everyday names in the Ozarks” (Death 12).
Sammy Barlach, twenty-something narrator and protagonist of Tomato Red, is a man without a past. Sammy comes to West Table in search of work, friends, and personal history. He settles in Venus Holler, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks place just outside of town. The residents of Venus Holler are poor and are conscious of the great divide in class and income that has always separated them from West Table’s proper citizenry. Sammy’s shack abuts an old road that “had been paved out of pity once back in the bygones but had busted up over the years and lain unrepaired and become forever rugged” (Tomato 40), a clear symbol that Sammy resides in both past and present.
Ree Dolly, sixteen-year-old protagonist of Winter’s Bone, lives in a ramshackle house in Raithlin Valley, deep in the heart of the Ozarks. Ree’s family is isolated from the present. The junction school is six miles away, and West Table is a two-hour drive over bad, snowy roads. Ree’s two young brothers watch a television that only gets two channels because of the valley’s isolation; the TV is the only modern convenience in Ree’s home. Built in 1914, the home contains no insulation or central heat, and Ree struggles to feed and warm her family with only a pot-bellied stove. Ree wears her grandmother’s coat; Ree’s most prized possession is an heirloom rifle passed down through generations. When Ree fears that she will lose the family home, she begins to sift through the past. She burns the three generations of dresses clogging the bedroom closet, ancient schoolbooks and tools, and piles and piles of her ancestor’s trash.
Woodrell’s most recent Ozarks novel, The Maid’s Version, is a book built entirely around a past event that still influences the modern residents of West Table. This short novel “works the way memory works,” says Woodrell (Interview. By Peter Wild) and uses shifts in time to tell the story of “how forty-two dancers from this small corner of the Missouri Ozarks… perished in an instant” (Maid’s 5) in the Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1929. Sixty years after this event, narrator Alek is on a journey to solve the mystery of the explosion, a trip that requires he explore West Table’s collective memory. Alek’s grandmother Alma, the maid of the book’s title, is sure the explosion was murder; she refuses to let go of old pain, bitterness, and suspicion. Alma’s “hair was as long as her story… [and] mostly white smeared by grey, the hues of a newspaper that lay in the rain until headlines blended across the page” (3). When the Black Angel monument to the dead starts to dance, the West Table of the present is forced to jig with that of the past. Even the novel’s architecture shows the ramifications of the past on the present. Woodrell says, “I was turned on by the method of blending yesterday and today through structure” (Interview. By Peter Wild).
The Ozarks’ Family Tree
With a predilection for tradition, it should be no surprise that Woodrell’s Ozarks and Ozark characters value ancestry. Rafferty notes that Ozarkers consider heritage in terms of “group survival… [N]atives of any age are anxious to place themselves in the context of their ancestors” (238). In the Ozarks, past means family, and family is ever present. The Ozarks itself is kin, and loss of land is likened to the death of a family member. In Give Us a Kiss, Doyle Redmond’s family lost most of its seventeen hundred acres when Panda Redmond murdered a member of the Dolly clan in 1950; Panda’s mother sold their land to pay the bribes that kept Panda out of prison. Now, Doyle claims that “General Jo and Uncle Bill took the loss of the Redmond land . . . about the same way those other rebels took the loss of the Confederacy” (52). The loss of the land is an event that shapes Doyle’s life “in kinds of ways that can’t be proven but are sensed, felt, maybe only imagined” (2). In Winter’s Bone, Ree Dolly’s horror at the possibility of losing her family’s land because of her father’s legal problems leads her to search for him all over Raithlin Valley and the surrounding knobs and ridges. Her father’s disappearance means she must give all her precious land to the bail bondsman, who will quickly sell it for timber. Ree knows that “the true price of such a sale would be the ruination of home, and despite lean years of hardship, no generation yet wanted to be the one who wrought that upon the family land” (104).
In Woodrell’s novels, the Ozarks is a parent, an ancestor that shapes the residents and their lives. As a young adult, Woodrell left the Ozarks in order to avoid, he says, the “clabbering effect of all these ancestral eyes on you all the time” but returned to find that “[a]fter a while, [my family] became a guiding thing [in my writing]” (“Daniel Woodrell on the Ozarks”). Doyle Redmond of Give Us a Kiss also feels “clabbered” by his family’s past: “I oftimes feel that my genes have me cornered” (Give 105). Looking at family photographs, Doyle says, can “make one nervous concerning tragic consistency, ancestral expectations, and that horrible bloodstream urge to go on and do the questionable deeds that might make those dead faces nod with grim approval” (Give 105). In Woodrell’s Ozarks, the bloodstream urge tends toward pot growing and crank cooking. Mired in poverty, many Ozarkers in Woodrell’s novels turn toward crime. “The Ozarks are rampant with dope patches,” Doyle Redmond says (Give 60). Woodrell indicates that the drug trade and the lawlessness described in his works “in part reflect the culture of a clannish people who live by their own rules” (qtd. in Memmott).
Unlike Doyle, Shuggie Atkins has little family to speak of in The Death of Sweet Mister. His mother is a drunk, fading beauty and his “father” a cruel rube named Red, although everyone seems to understand that Shuggie’s paternity is uncertain. Just as he is estranged from his family, Shuggie is disconnected from the Ozarks itself. He hates the heat; he hates the way “[t]he woods squeezed close at the very end of the yard on the three sides and stood there glum like a crowd that had patience but was not so sure they would be entertained” (75); he hates how the warm weather “had prompted blossoms to unclench and wild flowers pose tall and prissy amongst the weeds” (2). Because he does not feel a part of the Ozarks family, Shuggie breaks the all important rule of kin—he betrays his mother’s hopes when he “rats out” her boyfriend as Red’s killer. He now has his mother all to himself, though Shuggie says that “no dawn ever did break right over her and me again” (196).
Sammy Barlach of Tomato Red comes to the Ozarks in search of family, which he hopes he has found in Venus Holler; however, Holler residents bristle at being part of this large Ozarks clan. Jamalee Merridew regrets that “[o]ur entire futures in West Table have been agreed upon and settled the very day we were born” (Tomato 60). Jamalee, a nineteen-year-old with hair dyed tomato red, attempts to teach Sammy and her brother, Jason, manners and “high ways,” but she cannot escape her origins. Her mother is a prostitute, her father is an unknown, and her fate seems sealed when her brother is found murdered, his body left in a scummy Ozarks pond. Whether Jason is killed because he helped deface the West Table Country Club in a fit of poor man’s rage or because he is gay in an insulated, conservative region is unclear, but his death leads Jamalee to attempt to escape. Sammy, however, is heartbroken that his new family is falling apart as surely as the abandoned, run-down whorehouse he lives next to in the holler and the crumbling road he drives over daily.
Woodrell’s novels are populated with feuding families. In The Maid’s Version, Alma is ostracized from the community and fired from her maid position when she accuses her employer—the wealthy town banker and her sister’s lover—of planning the dance hall explosion. In Give Us a Kiss, the Redmonds fight the Dollys. In Winter’s Bone, the Dollys fight everyone, including themselves, though kinship always outweighs anger in the end. “There were 200 Dollys plus Lockrums, Boshells, Tankersleys and Langans, who were basically Dollys by marriage, living within 30 miles of this valley,” Woodrell writes. “Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful in a pinch” (Winter’s 18). It is to this strong sense of family that Ree appeals to when she asks her neighbors to help her find her wayward father. Ree is surrounded by the Ozarks and thus surrounded by family. Ree learns that her father, one of the best meth cookers the Dollys have, turned snitch; this is an action that gets a person killed in the Ozarks, family or not. Ree suspects the Hawkfall Dollys of killing him but also expects them to do as kin “oughto” and produce her father’s body as a dead man cannot be expected to appear in court. The “rough Dollys were plenty peppery and hard-boiled toward one another, but were unleashed hell on enemies, scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own” (18).
Ree knows that the land is like kin, like her Dolly family, and she also begins to believe that this land holds her father’s body. Throughout the novel, Ree searches for answers to her father’s disappearance among her family—both the people and the land. Ree sees the Ozarks as a living thing, an ancestor. To Ree, family name is important: “[T]he great name of the Dollys was Milton, and at least two dozen Miltons moved about in Ree’s world. If you named a son Milton, it was a decision that attempted to chart the life he lived before he even stepped into it, for among the Dollys the name carried expectations and history” (61). Woodrell’s Ozarks is mother and father, grandmother and grandfather. Woodrell’s use of Ozarks as family is perhaps best seen in Ree Dolly’s familiarity with the hills, knobs, hollers, and villages she visits in her search for her father. As she encounters a crumbling rock wall, Ree views the stones as symbolic of her family. Upon seeing a stone fencerow, she believes “[t]hose stones had probably been piled by direct ancestors and she . . . saw parts of their lives sowing in her own” (28). As in all of Woodrell’s works, a character’s ancestors are embodied in the rocky Ozarks and lead lives shaped by it: “With her eyes closed [Ree] could call them near, see those olden Dolly kin who had so many bones that broke, broke and mended, broke and mended wrong, so they limped through life on the bad-mend bones for year upon year until falling dead in a single evening from soothing that sounded wet in the lungs” (28).
The Ozarks’ Fickle Face
The land holds a special connection for an Ozarker as it is “a place of refuge, a place to come back to” (Rafferty 240). This land, remarks Doyle Redmond in Give Us a Kiss, “[i]s all meadows and hills, trees and red rocky dirt. The houses show signs of having been built by different generations with different notions of architecture, but all run together to make single rambling homes where the different wings appear almost to have been built as refutations of previous wings” (3). Doyle notes that the Ozarks is a land of contradiction where “[a] perfectly maintained Victorian with a spruced lawn will have for a neighbor a shotgun shanty with a screen door that’s sprung, and porch that teeters and bare dirt for a yard. This is the sort of cranky democracy hillfolk insist upon” (158).
In many of his Ozarks works, Woodrell uses metaphor that likens his fictional characters to the landscape. In Winter’s Bone, Ree Dolly notices that Thump Milton’s face is “a monument of Ozark stone, with juts and angles and cold shaded parts the sun never touched” (133); she sometimes feels that “weakened parts of her were crumbling away inside like mud banks along a flood stream, collapsing inward and splashing big plopping feelings she couldn’t stand” (152).
Woodrell also casts the Ozarks as character when he personifies the region and its weather. The Ozarks is often a harsh, hard entity in Woodrell’s works. Doyle Redmond says of the Ozarks, the “sun climbed way up past straight and was evil hot” (Give 4), and Sammy Barlach notices that “[r]ain clouds, all dark and muttering, were mobbing out west, but longer, finger bones of sunlight showed through” (Tomato 120). Sammy knows that Venus Holler itself is a living thing, a part of his new family and a being that hunkers at the edge of his life: “This holler . . . had the shape of a collapsed big thing, something that had been running and running until it ran out of gas and dropped down exhausted exactly here. The houses were flung out along this deep crease in the hills and the crease surely did resemble the posture of a forlorn collapsed creature” (Tomato 162). Shuggie Atkins also knows the Ozarks is a formidable force when he looks at the tombstones that surround him: “The oldest needed to be read with fingers, the words and numbers had been blown off by the years and the stuff years throw at a thing” (Death 45). Alma’s childhood attempts to make a living on the rocky soil only succeeded if “the weatherdidn’t blaze or the creek flood again and wash every meal of tomorrow downstream” (Maid’s 33).
Almost every chapter in Winter’s Bone uses setting imagery or personifies setting. The very title of the novel indicates an Ozarks season personified: winter is throwing Ree a bone, “winter itself giving a gift” (“Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell”). Snow “[b]its worked inside [Ree’s] neckline and melted against her chest” (9), and “[t]he wind heaved and knocked the mood from her head” (29). Ree’s aunt died when “a flash flood caught her dawdling strangely on the low bridge and never gave her body back” (2). While searching the land for her father, Ree spies a “barn made of wood drenched by generations of weather and rendered gray and rickety” (31) and the “stone faces of houses” (52) that often looked “caught on the scraggly hillsides like crumbs in beard” (2).
Though life in the Ozarks is punishing, it is also comforting. In Give Us a Kiss, Doyle Redmond sees Ozarks water as a friend and a blessing. “Water is the major compensation nature blessed our region with. Most of the streams and rivers run clear and pretty, often spring fed and clean enough for trout” (115), Doyle says. He knows that “[e]very flow of water has a stone lining in the Ozarks” (115) and that the cliffs that surround him “had been formed by volcanic rock, a stream trickling down [a] gray face” (113).
Like Doyle, Shuggie Atkins also finds beauty in Ozarks water in The Death of Sweet Mister. An Ozarker cut off from the land, Shuggie can’t swim, but he knows “water had the sound of women who wouldn’t hurt me, that sound of voices in a talk that I could join . . . . Springs from inside the earth caused this river. It was made of old old water and ran cold. The river had become a place of comfort to me . . . . Some waves jumped high and I tasted the river and it tasted about right” (117-118).
Stuck overnight in the wintry land, Ree of Winter’s Bone seeks shelter in a damp, empty cave and drinks cave water. There, she lets the land embrace her: “The corner by the wall became very warm and Ree sat there bare-butted and oddly comforted, knowing that so many relatives with names she never knew had hunched here in this very spot to renew themselves after a sad spinning time had dropped over their lives and whirled them raw” (68).
The Ozarks Finds its Voice
Woodrell’s Ozarks has a past, a personality, and a distinctive voice. This voice is both literal and figurative, full of noises and Ozarks dialect. Woodrell uses prolific sound imagery to indicate the literal voice of the Ozarks. The Ozarks’ coyotes “howled from far crags and ridges down the valley to the end of the rut where the school bus stopped” (Winter’s 45). Its “keening blue wind was bringing weather back into the sky” (Winter’s 49). In many of Woodrell’s Ozarks novels, a train is always “scream[ing] over the hill” (Death 43). Sammy Barlach fears the Venus Holler stray cats that “hit notes in their cries that communicated stuff you don’t want to understand” (Tomato 56).
The voice of the Ozarks is both loud and soft; it speaks in moans and in silences. Stuck in the dark countryside with his mother, Shuggie Atkins says “so many creatures make noise in the country at night. They make noises that meant something about us. We both were town-raised and many of the noises in the weeds or high limbs or near distance made us pause” (Death 137). In Winter’s Bone, Woodrell writes, “The bringing wind rattled the forest, shook limb against limb, and a wild tapping noise carried all about. Now and then a shaking limb gave up and split from the trunk to land below with a sound like a final grunt” (58). During Ree’s long walks, “coyotes sang to her” (68) and she can hear only “[i]ce sounds and trickle sounds and her boots thumping” (70).
The other voices of the Ozarks come from its human residents. Ree listens to her own voice when she lists all the interesting Ozark nicknames given to the numerous Miltons that inhabit her world: “To occupy her mind, she decided to name all the Miltons: Thump, Blond, Catfish, Spider, Whoop, Rooster, Scrap . . . Lefty, Dog, Punch, Pink-eye, Momsy . . . Cotton, Hog-Jaw, Ten Penny, Peashot” (Winter’s 61). Ozarkers tell “windy tales of whiffle-birds, the galoopus, the bing buffer, and other Ozarks creatures seldom seen in these woods but known for generations to live there” (Winter’s 116). Such stories are told with a musical, rhythmic quality. In The Maid’s Version, there is a “twang stretching every word Alma [says]” (4). Ree likes to hear stories in the “soothing hillfolk drawl” (Winter’s 82), and Doyle notices that “[Panda’s] accent is deeper than mine, lush and basso, almost Delta-sounding” (Give 9). Randolph and Wilson note the Ozark dialect’s “musical soothing quality” (4).
In Down in the Holler: A Gallery of Ozark Folk Speech, Vance Randolph and George P. Wilson see modern Ozarks speech as a “weak, watered thing” (4); Woodrell’s works, however, prove that Ozarks dialect is still, in some form, in use. In Woodrell’s novels, an Ozarker can get a “hinky feelin'” (Winter’s 141). He or she can be “[a] little pindlin’ but not pukey sick” (Winter’s 24). “For Cripe’s Sake!” is said in times of exasperation (Winter’s 94). A person with courage has “sand” (Winter’s 107); people are referred to by their “front names” (Winter’s 30), or given names. While the notion that Ozark sayings and speech patterns have an “Elizabethan” quality (Randolph and Wilson 70) due to the isolated nature of the region makes for better press than science (Bowden), it is true that settlers that immigrated within the first half of the nineteenth century from Appalachia and other isolated areas were further cut off by Ozark topography. Perhaps it is this isolation that accounts for Shuggie Atkins’ strange syntax and uncommon word usage in The Death of Sweet Mister. Shug says, “I did hand the tea to her, and then I did get out and grab up” (3). He notes that “Glenda’s tea did sit as usual on such a tray” (24) and that blackberries “got picked by me” (27). During a party at his home, Red and a friend “did get happy and the guitar did get beat and part of songs flew from it” (39). When he notices the cows in a West Table stockyard, he refers to them as “the beeves” (180).
Woodrell’s work shows that the Ozarks has a musical voice replete with coyote song, groaning trees, and sing-song speech. As Ozark author Rose Wilder Lane says, the Ozarks’ voice has an “inimitable cadence that makes the simplest remark as musical as though it were sung” (qtd. in Randolph and Wilson 9).
The Ozarks’ Spiritual Side
Like music, religion has long been a part of the Ozarks, be it animism, Baptist, Cumberland Presbyterian, Pentecostal, circuit riding preacher, or brush arbor revival (Rafferty 237; Blevins 52). Faith, writes Blevins, “was a valued tool of the [Ozark] frontier; it served as a commission to ‘work till Jesus comes’ and as a balm in times of hardship and distress” (51). Woodrell’s characters are far from religious; however, they are spiritual. In his novels, the Ozarks itself acts as both church and pastor. “The trees from both sides joined branches above to make a secular cathedral of limb and leaf,” Doyle notes (Give 26); the “earth takes sin” (Give 82). Ree also finds the sacred in nature when she “followed a path made by prey uphill through scrub, across a bald knob and downhill into a section of pine trees and pine scent and that pious shade and silence pines create. Pine trees with low limbs spread over fresh snow made a stronger vault for the spirit than pews and pulpits ever could” (Winter’s 38).
Ree, Sammy, Shuggie, and Doyle do not hold with traditional religion but instead see land as holy. Ree notes that the village of Hawkfall “sat on bottom land and perched low or high on surrounding slopes and ridges. The new part of Hawkfall was old to most folks, but the old part of Hawkfall seemed ancient and creepy and sort of sacred” (Winter’s 49). The world of Winter’s Bone is filled with scattered stone walls torn asunder during the “bitter reckoning” (49)—a vague battle over religion that separated the Hawkfall Dollys from Ree’s Dolly clan in Raithlin Valley years before. In Hawkfall, “most places still had two front doors in accordance with certain readings of the scripture, one door for men, the other for women” (49). Ree senses that not only are the Ozark people steeped in religion but also that the Ozarks itself is a kind of god. She is healed from her beating in a local spring where “the water was a cool holy blue and rose to make jouncy plashes across the surface” (158).
Woodrell’s characters experience their spirituality through methods often contrary to traditional religion. Drug use is a common theme in his work, and a drug high can be a worship experience: “[Ree] felt all gooey, gooey with the slobbered lore of various gods gathered within, and smiling full-time, went about the woods looking to collect butterflies and pet them until they gave milk, or maybe roll in dirt until she felt China through her skin” (Winter’s 54). The dancing Black Angel memorial in The Maid’s Version draws gawking crowds to its supernatural jig.
A belief in folkways and ghosts also drives Woodrell’s characters. In Winter’s Bone, Ree’s friend, an elementary school teacher, believes her sickness is caused by a “haint” (a spirit). Doyle Redmond believes he is an “old soul [with] many lives” (Give 64), and he is surrounded in Give Us a Kiss by Ozarkers with other nontraditional beliefs. His girlfriend, Niagra, believes in ghost “boogerdogs” (75); she also holds with spells and witches and is searching for a “goomer doctor” to give her powers. As Doyle explains, a “goomer doctor is an ancient hillbilly term for a witch, basically, they are of any sex… Only a goomer doctor of the opposite sex can truly bring one into the fold” (67-68). All of his family has a clear spiritual side and knowledge of traditional Christian belief and ceremony. After Doyle murders a Dolly who is after his patch of marijuana, he and his friends and family perform an impromptu funeral in which they sing “‘Peace in the Valley,’ a real meaningful church tune though none of us could be considered churched-up folk” (86); they give up after they forget the words and the song turns “ragged, pitiful, maybe blasphemous” (86).
Woodrell’s work makes it clear the Ozarks engenders spirituality in its residents, whether such residents cling to organized religion or not. Although Woodrell’s characters are not “churched” in the traditional sense, they do not have to be when church is all around them in the rocks, springs, and trees.
Ultimately, Woodrell’s Ozarks is a character with a past, a family, a face, a voice, and a spirituality that both shapes and is shaped by the human characters in his writing. Cultural geographers point out that landscape affects human groups and that cultures change with “innumerable possible permutations and combinations of physical landscape features, including bedrock, slope, soils, vegetation, rivers and creeks” (Rafferty 245). In Woodrell’s works, setting is an active force rather than a passive one. Physical geographies parallel his characters’ internal landscapes. All of Woodrell’s characters walk the borders of their own personal wilderness; all are aware of the boundaries imposed upon them by society, fate, religion, and tradition. Setting is never separate from story, and characters, events and choices are always limited by environment. Woodrell’s human characters are the Ozarks, and the Ozarks embody the characteristics of his human characters. Like Doyle, the Ozarks is steeped in and shaped by the past. Like Ree, it is stubborn, resourceful, smart, hard, reverent, and gentle. Woodrell tells grim stories full of violent people and landscapes, but it is only when a character fails to connect with the Ozarks, as do Shuggie Atkins and Sammy Barlach, that the story has an unhappy ending.
Woodrell’s strong sense of place is one element that has helped him garner critical acclaim. His self-described “semi-Southern,” “kinda gothic” fiction (“Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell”) has been lauded by critic Alex Gibbons as a “picture of rural America . . . convincingly bleak and insular.” His voice is distinctive because of its regionalism. Andrew M. Brown says, “He writes readable and intelligent yarns in the richly expressive vernacular of the Ozark region” (qtd. in “Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell”). Woodrell knows his setting; he knows how to create a story “as melodic, jangly, and energetic as a good banjo riff” (Sayers); and, above all, he knows that a distinctive element of Ozarkers is their “uncommon sense of place. They think of themselves as Ozarkers, refer to nonresidents as outsiders” (Rafferty 4). In the Ozarks, “family history intermingle[s] with landscape in an uncommon way” (Rafferty 6) to produce a region that becomes family.
“In the hills of life there are two trails,” observes Wright in The Shepherd of the Hills. “One lies along the higher sunlit fields . . . and one leads to the lower ground” (11). Both Wright and Woodrell set their trails firmly in the Ozarks, whose valleys and ridges impact all parts of life in their novels. Ree Dolly wanders the Ozarks’ wooded trails in Winter’s Bone just as all of Woodrell’s protagonists somehow wander the Ozarks and its past. As Wright notes in The Shepherd of the Hills, “[In the Ozarks] there is an Old Trail leading down in the mountain . . . . No one seems to know how long that narrow path has lain along the mountain; but it must be very long for it is deeply worn in places” (12-13). Woodrell’s stories are the tales “of the man who took the trail that leads to the lower ground, and of a woman, and how she found her way to the higher sunlit fields” (Wright 11).
In an interview with Peter Wild, Woodrell himself notes that the Ozarks region is a defining force in both the lives of his characters and in his life as an author: “At a time when I was searching, this place, the Ozarks, began to speak strongly to me, and that has been the case for six books now. I’ve known other places well . . . but I’ll never feel I’ve known any other place for generations the way I do here.” Few writers are more cognizant of the effect of region on storytelling than Daniel Woodrell. In Give Us a Kiss, Tomato Red, The Death of Sweet Mister, Winter’s Bone, and The Maid’s Version, Woodrell clearly understands what Rafferty argues: in the Ozarks “landscape is an object that penetrates the mind and alters the man” (6).
Blevins, Brooks. Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image. University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Bowden, Bill. “Shakespeare in the Ozarks? Arkansas Touts Unique Heritage.” USA Today, 25 Nov. 2012, http://www.usatoday. com/story/travel/destinations/2012/11/25/shakespeare-ozarks-arkansas-unique-language-heritage/1724131/.
Gibbons, Alex. “Backwoods Girl.” Rev. of Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. The New Statesman, 3 July 2006, http://www.newstatesman.com/node/164665.
Memmott, Carol. “‘Writer’s Writer’ Finds a Following.” USA Today, 7 Aug. 2006, http://www.USAtoday.com/life/books/news/2006-08-07-woodrell-main_x.htm.
Rafferty, Milton D. The Ozarks: Land and Life. University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
Randolph, Vance, and George P. Wilson. Down in the Holler: A Gallery of Ozark Folk Speech. University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.
Sayers, Valerie. “Every Weird Family is Weird in Its Own Way.” Rev. of Tomato Red, by Daniel Woodrell. The New York Times on the Web, 4 Oct. 1998, http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/04/reviews/981004.04sayerst.html.
Waterhouse, Lin. “Daniel Woodrell: The Voice of the Other Ozarks.” Ozarks Magazine. Feb./Mar. 2007, pp. 34-35. Linwaterhouse.org, http://www.linwaterhouse.org/Woodrell__ Daniel.pdf. Accessed 28 Sept. 2016.
Williams, John. “Daniel Woodrell: The Ozark Daredevil.” The Independent, 16 June 2006, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/daniel-woodrell-the-ozark-daredevil-6098061.html.
“Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell.” Readbag, http://www.readbag.com/kdl-kdl-pdf-bookclubbagwintersbone. Accessed 28 Sept. 2016.
Wright, Harold Bell. The Shepherd of the Hills. Grosset & Dunlap, 1907.
Woodrell, Daniel. The Death of Sweet Mister. Plume, 2001.
—. Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir. Pocket Books, 1996.
—. “Daniel Woodrell Interview Part 1of 3.” By Barbara Peters. YouTube, 29 Aug. 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bbo6hVT77kA.
—. “Daniel Woodrell on the Ozarks.” YouTube, 15 July 2011. Web. 28 Sept. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qn0-mtOzPCg.
—. Interview. By Peter Wild. Bookmunch, 15 Aug. 2013, https://bookmunch.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/im-always-re-investigating-the-past-i-expect-that-will-become-more-central-rather-than-less-from-here-on-an-interview-with-daniel-woodrell-author-of-the-maids-version/.
—. The Maid’s Version. Back Bay Books, 2013.
—. Tomato Red. Holt, 1998.
—. Winter’s Bone. Back Bay Books, 2006.
Carla Kirchner is a poet, fiction writer, and English professor from Springfield, Missouri. Her poetry chapbook, The Physics of Love, won the 2016 Concrete Wolf Press Chapbook Contest. Her poetry has received Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations, and her work has appeared in such publications as Literary Orphans, Rappahannock Review, Gravel, and Unbroken Journal.