Saturday, November 6, 2010


“I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered. That’s how I know that my Dad is dead.”
- Ree Dolly

After spending 35 years teaching elderhostels in western North Carolina and north Georgia, I have to agree with those scholars who conclude that Appalachia is the most misunderstood region in the United States. The average elderhostel usually contains participants from America’s major cities. In addition to being over 65, the average class will contain people who are intelligent and well-read (with the majority possessing college degrees). In general, they are a delight to teach, for unlike the average high school class, they are eager to learn and discuss. There is just one persistent problem: the majority of my elderhostel students arrive at an Appalachian-based elderhostel with an astonishing number of misconceptions about the region and its people.

Over the years I became weary of encountering the same fictions about my culture. With a total lack of malice, people from New York, Miami and San Francisco will ask: “What is being done to eradicate incest and inbreeding?” or “Will we get to visit a moonshine still?” Sweet-faced grandmothers would ask if anyone in my family had ever been snake-bit in church. “Are those feuds still going on?” It took me several years to realize that these pre-conceived ideas came from several centuries of misinformation culminating in Snuffy Smith, Li’l Abner, “HeeHaw,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” All this in conjunction with stereotypes and distortions fostered by movies, yellow journalism and sensationalized fiction.

It is a rare thing to encounter a Hollywood movie, a novel or a drama that depicts Appalachian culture with anything resembling authenticity or integrity. Even the best intentioned visions are tainted with inaccurate details or mawkish sentiment (the Pulitzer-winning drama, “Kentucky Cycle," that is a beautifully written fraud). Many of the films are written by people who haven’t even been here (“Next of Kin”). I guess that is why I get a bit irrational when I finally encounter a film with integrity, such as “Winter’s Bone.”

Both the novel by Daniel Woodrell and the film (released this month and already scheduled for television) resonate with a kind of cultural purity that brings tears to my eyes. It is not a pretty story. In fact, the critics (Rotten are tagging it (accurately) as “noir” and “a bleak thriller.” However, it is also being called “a fable of redemption and hope.” Many critics feel it will receive a number of Academy Award nominations. (It recently received the Grand Jury Award at Sundance.) Here is a brief synopsis of the movie:

Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old girl living in a remote Ozark cove with a younger brother and sister has reason to be concerned about her family’s survival. Her mother is mentally unstable and her father, who “cooks crack” for a living has vanished. Ree supplements the dwindling groceries by hunting squirrels. She is finally forced to give her father’s horse away and she spends a lot of time chopping firewood for the stove. When the local sheriff comes by to inform her that before her father vanished, (he had put up the deed for his house and land as collateral to “make his bail.”) Consequently, he had been released with the understanding that he would return for trial. If he fails to do so, the court will evict the Dollys and take the land. Ree’s father does not appear and the family is given a week to move out.

The heart of “Winter’s Bone” is the search for a missing father. It is a search that echoes another film, “True Grit”, (1969) in which a 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) enlists the aid of “Rooster Cogburn” (John Wayne) in her search for justice. Both films feature spunky, young girls, who, when faced with near hopeless circumstance that leave them crushed and bloody, simply get up and go on. Instead of John Wayne, Ree has an uncle named “Teardrop” (John Hawkes who portrayed Sol Star in “Deadwood.”) Teardrop seems a dubious defender ... at first.

Although Ree has a “best friend,” April (Sheryl Lee) and the cautious sympathy of a few relatives, all support vanishes like a spring snow when her search takes her into conflicts with the insular culture of her community.When her search takes her into the isolated coves where her father’s, relatives live, the atmosphere of “Winter’s Bone” becomes progressively threatening. Even the last resort (Ree’s favorite fantasy) of joining the army and using her pay to save her family vanishes when she fails to meet the age requirements. Eventually, her dogged persistence pays off. There is a memorable night-time scene in which Ree Dolly floats into a dark and icy lake with two grim-faced mountain women and a chainsaw ...

“Winter’s Bone” depicts the dark underbelly of mountain culture: rusty trailers, clotheslines, fields of corroded, cannibalized vehicles, barking dogs, and a soundtrack filled with gunfire and chair-saws. Yet, it is authentic. My own neighborhood is similar to Ree Dolly’s, right down to the dog lots and chicken coops. (We have a paved road, but the nights are still punctuated with gunfire.) Unlike many previous films, Ree’s neighbors are not depicted as one-dimensional, dim-witted and violent. Behind the mute and watchful faces are humane beings who, in the final analysis, have a kind of stoic nobility. I kept thinking of my grandfather’s own summary of the state of things in Rhodes Cove: “Things have been bad but they are probably going to get worse.”

Even so, I find it distressing to read reviews of “Winter’s Bone” that are filled with the same inaccurate descriptive phrases - such as “dim-witted hillbillies, bestial mountain yokels, trailer trash, etc.” Even when the movies treat our culture with respect, we still have metropolitan critics with opinions that have been shaped by stereotypes and preconceived ideas. I am distressed that these shameful descriptive phrases are delivered by writers who have no doubts that their statements are apt and true. I keep fantasizing about visiting a few cosmopolitan critics with Ree’s uncle, Teardrop, who has a unique ability to change people’s minds.


  1. "Winter's Bone" is all about the people and what they are willing to do to survive. Even if the government was willing to help (or able to) them Ree and her family wouldn't take it--because they know that taking help from the government is the beginning of the return to servitude. One thing that I didn't see that was overlooked by the writers was Ree didn't carry a knife. The mountain women (and men) that I know all carry knives. This story could have been set anywhere on earth where people want to stay free. It's all about the people.

  2. I didn't see any evidence of the government's presence in "Winter's Bone." Also, WNCWU, you live in a different Appalachia from the one I inhabit. Out of all of my mountain-bred girl friends that were born and raised in Wilmot, Whittier, Cullowhee and Rhodes Cove, I never had one that carried a knife.

  3. Hi Gray, great review. I can't wait to see it. Not sure about the pocket knife thing though. Since I was born and raised in Arkansas maybe we were a little different, but I've always carried one and still do. In the bibs of my overalls. Maybe those girls kept them put up or it's more a regional thing. Anyway I'll see you soon. Kathy

  4. Well, let's be specific. Are we talking about pocket knives like my Aunt Ruby carried because she whittled,opened feed sacks, peeled apples, etc. or are we talking about hunting knives, something in a sheath,a "frog-sticker"??? In addition, if WNCWU has not read the novel, Winter's Bone, then he can't speculate on what the novel (or the the movie) overlooked.

  5. Gray We're talkng feed sacks, rope, etc. You know the fold up kind. Mind is a "Case", so was my 95 year old Grandmother's maidan name. Keep it all in the family. My family left these mountains 8 generations ago, when it got over crowded to go to the Ozarks. Kathy :-)

  6. Hey Gray this is off the subject, but my Blue Flemish doe rabbit just had 5 fat kits. To think that they'll be 15-18 pounds in 6 months, that's a lot of feed sacks to open for an Appanachian graduate to open with that case knife. Hope all is well with you. Looking forward to the next Liar's Bench. I'm glad to be in Cullowhee! Kathy-Vortex Hollow Farm

  7. Yeah, I had a Case knife. Then I had a Barlow. I also had a Grit route, sold Cloverene and Rosebud salve and wrote in a Blue Horse notebook. Clipped them suckers, too. I also had a snap-bug and had rabbit-boxes in the woods...the kind with a drop door, a string and a notched stick. I'm getting homesick for the '40's.

  8. I read the book--recommended by you--and saw the movie because of it. The book was a fabulous find, and I liked the movie almost as well. My village growing up wasn't quite like that, but I understood the people and the nuances quite well. I also understand how disappointed you were by some of the bigoted reviews you've apparently read. Despite what the Bible says, too many people judge others by the outward symbols. The best way to change stereotypes is for good people to keep writing and telling the stories.

  9. I watched this movie thanks to your review, Gary.
    My wife watched it with me. She was blown out of
    the water as was I. Yes, it's "noir" but if you
    live here (in these southern mountains)and just
    look around, what happens in "Winter's Bone" is happening probably within a mile of your house.
    As a retired social worker - familiar with society's underbelly, wherever I've lived or
    worked - I liked the authenticity of this film. As someone who's lived over half his life in these hills because I love it here, this movie, more than any other in recent memory, "tells it like it is" with intelligence and respect, sans lies and stereotyping. There's a whole other side to contemporary Appalachian life, but this movie shows us the dark side, unforgettably, giving us all a wake-up call and reminding us that we have neighbors out there who are in real trouble.

  10. I watched it a couple weeks ago and thought of you--wished we could have seen it together! I thought that it was incredible.

  11. i was wondering what some symbolism in Winter's Bone...

    1. i was also wondering about symbolism but from the book not the movie

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