I just read Winter’s Bone with my book club. I watched the movie maybe two years ago and loved it. It was depressing, bleak and made me never want to find myself in the Ozarks after dark, but it was so well-made that I didn’t mind. And as usual, the book was even better. From the first page I was fully engaged, wrapped up in the sad, dark world of backwoods poverty and danger that the book describes in such creative detail. It made me want to write a great novel. Maybe someday. It also made me realize some things about my own life – things I hadn’t thought of in a long time.
I went to hear the author, Daniel Woodrell, speak about his life and his writing. During the interview he mentioned that he had been surprised at what a large part of the book’s audience turned out to be sixteen-year-old girls. They clearly had identified with the main character, Ree Dolly, and the tough choices she faced with such bravery in the book. As a 37-year-old woman I hadn’t noticed myself particularly identifying with Ree, but as the (awesome) ladies in my book club talked over wine and cocktails, I realized I clearly had. In a significant way. A friend posed a question to the group about one of the characters, and I caught my breath, realizing I’d missed a major connection between Ree Dolly and myself as an adolescent.
In the book Ree must take care of her brothers in the absence of her father, who is missing, and her mother, who is present but mentally gone. My father certainly was never presumed to be killed by meth-cookers, and my mother is alive and well and mentally present in my life, so my connections with the text were not literal. But there was a time when my mom was very sick, and to deal with the effects of that my dad was at work a lot. I also had a little brother to “take care of” in certain ways. Comparing my situation to Ree’s feels silly in light of the danger she faced, and that real girls in the hills of the Ozarks really do face daily. But it hits a nerve in my soul. One I didn’t know was still sore.
When I was in ninth grade my mother was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She knew something was wrong, having had fevers off and on for years, among a million other symptoms that doctors couldn’t decipher. But by the time she was diagnosed, the sickness had come on in full force. She slept most of the time, as I remember it, so was absent for a good deal of my high school years. This fact hurts her immensely now, as she certainly didn’t want to miss that time, but it’s part of my story, and part of Ree’s, too. Her mother was escaping the sadness and pain of her life, either by choice or because of her body’s physical reaction to it, by losing her mind. She was in the house, had to be taken care of, but wasn’t there to mother her daughter. My mom’s body was escaping it’s own pain, too, by sleeping. The illness and medicine made her confused; she just wasn’t the same mom I had known as a child. In Ree’s case, and in mine, the roles switched. Mother cared for daughter, and missed being cared for herself.
As a high-schooler I didn’t know how to deal with my mom’s sickness, so I decided to push it down, shut it up, make it go away in my heart. I would drive around singing Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am A Rock to myself and the air. “And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.” I was determined to be strong, not to feel, not to fall apart as my mom had. But there was more strength inside her sleeping body than I knew. Unlike the mom in Winter’s Bone, my mom wasn’t gone forever. Just lying dormant for a time. After a while, in her own Spring, she would emerge from the cave of her illness and begin living again.
In the book, Ree takes her mother for a walk and tries to elicit her help in making some decisions that will impact the family and everything they have left, but her mom doesn’t come back to her. She stays tucked inside the safety of her warped mind, away from decisions and heartache and responsibility. Whether by choice or circumstance, she is gone. My mom is not. It took several years, which surely felt like decades to my mother, for her to come out of the fog and fatigue of her illness, but she did. And she has slowly gotten better ever since. Unlike Ree, I got my mother back. It was rough time for both of us, but the happy ending is that I still have a mother, alive and active in my life, who I talk to nearly daily and who watches my kids for me all the time. She is their favorite person in the universe. It’s hard to believe she was ever “absent” at all.
The other good news is that I don’t try to push down my feelings anymore. I am not a rock. Or an island. I’m a mushy human being who is glad my mom came back to me. Though it would have been a too-sweet ending to Winter’s Bone, I wish Ree could say the same.