WHAT A CHARACTER

When the moral going gets tougher than a Sizzler’s steak, seasoned authors frequently turn to young protagonists for help carrying the load.

Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations” (1861), long considered one of the great first-person narratives in the English language, sets a young man from a working-class background to cope with and learn from the world of the privileged class.

Mark Twain, no slouch himself with the first-person narrative, knew a good thing when he trusted a pre-teen to carry the thematic weight of racial inequities and slavery.

A hundred years later, Bobbie Ann Mason published her first novel, “In Country,” delegating to Sam, a 16-year-old young woman from rural Kentucky, to freight the impact and meaning of the American involvement in Viet Nam.

Between Dickens and Mason, such young protagonists as J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield (“The Catcher in the Rye”) and Charles Portis’s Mattie Ross (“True Grit”) have joined fictional personalities from S. E. Hinton, Judy Bloom, and the like to remind us how profitable it can be for us to cast our reading lot with a young person of some deep concern for personal integrity.

Daniel Woodrell’s new novel, “Winter’s Bone” (Little Brown), brings us a young protagonist, a setting, and a theme that earns it a prime place on the shelf with these splendid earlier writers. A number of Woodrell’s earlier books have made use of the Dolly clan, a diverse group of rogues, scoundrels, and survivors who eke out such a living as possible in the depressed, hardscrabble terrain of the Ozarks. True enough, there are straight shooters, abiders of the law, among the Dollys, just as there are those who are driven by high poverty and low expectations for advancement. The Dollys have been in these mountainous valleys for generations. Some of them would have managed by farming, raising a few animals, and selling off their surplus. Others still would have invented ways to produce liquor from corn or rye, as well as inventing ways to sell it without, of course, having paid local and federal taxes. That, as the saying goes, was then. Now, although many among them would do a bit of fermenting for home use, a number of the Dollys have become adept at cooking up commercial grade batches of methamphetamine.

Among the Dolly clan is Ree, “brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes...her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again.” Here is a protagonist with a sharp eye for the reality about her. One of the realities is that Mom is on medications, rendering her “quiet and still, wearing a lingering smile prompted by something vaguely nice going on inside her head. She was a Bromont and she was born to this house, and she’d once been pretty. Even as she was now, medicated and lost to the present, with hair she forgot to wash or brush and deep wrinkles growing on her face, you could see she’d once been as comely as any girl that ever danced barefoot across this tangled country of Ozark hills and hollers. Long, dark, and lovely she had been, in those days before her mind broke and the parts scattered and she let them go.”

Another reality for Ree is her two brothers, Sonny and Harold, 10 and 8, respectively. “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…groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law.”

As much of a burden of love and conscience as the boys are, the defining impact of the novel comes from her father, Jessup Dolly, “a broken-faced, furtive man given to uttering quick pleading promises that made it easier for him to walk out the door and be gone, or come back inside and be forgiven.” Jessup is gone on one of his ventures as “Winter’s Bone” begins. “Start lookin’ for me soon as you see my face,” he tells Ree. “’Till then, don’t even wonder.”

Jessup is known through the Ozarks and, unfortunately for him, through the prison system as one of the better methamphetamine chefs. His away-from-home venture may conflict with a court appearance on his latest charge, and thus Ree’s journey, which is the major arc of this beautiful, disturbing, satisfying novel.

Protagonists of the classics have journeyed to the underworld to get information and/or a sense of closure. In “Winter’s Bone,” Ree travels to the underworld of her clan, the Dollys, of which there were nearly 200, “plus Lockrums, Boshells, Tankersleys, and Langans, who were basically Dollys by marriage, living within thirty miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful kin in a pinch.”

What Ree wants is a way out of this life of poverty and blunted expectations but as she is caught up in the severe needs of this narrative, she is taunted by her recurrent feat. “She’d never get away from her family as planned, off to the U.S. Army, where you got to travel with a gun and they made everybody help keep things clean. She’d never have her own concerns to tote. She’d never have her own concerns.”

In many ways, “Winter’s Bone” is about blood, the blood of kinship and connection, the blood of violence, and the bad blood of broken loyalties and betrayals. Two of the major differences in this narrative are in the unending sense of survival resident in Ree Dolly, and the language Daniel Woodrell uses in his chronicle of her. Like another remarkable Missourian, Sam Clemens, Woodrell has a feel for language that ricochets off each page, adding the horrible poetry of despair to the ringing anthems of dignity.

“Winter’s Bone” resolves outstanding accounts with a combination one-two punch that is not by any account pretty but it is by every account beautiful. This compact and pithy narrative is Woodrell’s finest yet, standing on the shoulders of a memorable protagonist and shored by the author’s compassionate vision.