Review 1553: Whippoorwills

Full disclosure: Peggy Schimmelman is my cousin’s wife, although I have never met her.

Whippoorwills is primarily an epistolary novel set in the Missouri Ozarks and Northern California. The premise of the novel is that Leigh, in California, wants to write a novel about Rosie’s friend, Chrystal, who disappeared when the girls were in high school. The two women are also linked by Melody, Rosie’s friend and Leigh’s sister, who is now dead.

The story is told in a rambling, folksy way by Rosie in Missouri, as she tries to convey information for the novel to Leigh. Intermittently, we also get a slice of Leigh’s life in California as she struggles with a job she hates and tries to find time to write.

This novel is well written and full of local color, both in its eccentric but likable characters and its vivid colloquial style. For all its expressed premise, it is really about the life of Rosie, whose fundamentalist background and natural naiveté combined with several horrific experiences send her into periodic mental illness.

For patient readers, there is a certain amount of payoff, but you have to embrace its many circumlocutions in Rosie’s eccentric way of expressing herself and just go along for the ride. At first, I wondered if the story of what happened to Chrystal was ever going to get anywhere, but then I realized the story was really about Rosie.

I did feel, though, that the novel was a bit too long and wandering and that the sections about Leigh didn’t add much to it. I enjoyed much of it, though, and found some of it touching.

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Day 104: The Death of Sweet Mister

Cover for The Death of Sweet MisterAnother of Daniel Woodrell’s Ozark mysteries, The Death of Sweet Mister is grittier and more pessimistic than the previous Woodrell mystery I read, Winter’s Bone, and that is saying something.

The novel is set in the 1960’s. Shug Atkins is a lonely, overweight 13-year-old boy. His mother, Glenda, is a beautiful, promiscuous drunk who is married to Red, a brutal drug dealer who beats both of them and forces Shug to help steal drugs from sick people. Only Shug’s mother loves him and calls him Sweet Mister.

Glenda meets Jimmy Vin Pearce, a city man with a bright green Thunderbird who works as a cook in an upscale restaurant. The two begin sneaking around together with only Shug as witness. Eventually, Glenda decides to run away with him.

The novel is about the death of innocence, as Shug tries to cope with the demands of covering up his mother’s misdeeds and trying to reconcile his feelings about stealing from the helpless. As always with Woodrell, the book is beautifully and sparingly written. Your heart sinks as you follow Shug’s story.

Day 52: Winter’s Bone

Cover for Winter's BoneI became interested in reading Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell after seeing the powerful, gritty movie. If anything, the book is grittier and more compelling.

Winter’s Bone is a grim, yet touching, sparsely written tale of a young girl’s attempt to save her home. Ree Dolly is a high school student who has been supporting her mentally ill mother and two younger brothers in an area of the Ozarks that except for some modern-day conveniences doesn’t seem like it could be much different from it was a hundred years ago or more. One day the sheriff arrives to tell her that her father put their house and property up as collateral for his bail, and that if he doesn’t make his court date in a week, the family will lose their home. To Ree, this would mean a loss of all hope.

Ree sets out to find her father, whom she hasn’t seen in several months. Although almost everyone she visits is related to her in some way, most of the men are meth cookers, and her quest among the Ozark hollows is fraught with danger. Some of the women are even scarier than the men. Ree begins to feel that there is some greater mystery–that others know where her father is and aren’t telling. Initially resistant to her efforts, her terrifying Uncle Teardrop finally decides out of family loyalty to help her.

Woodrell’s prose is both lyrical and spare. You are rooting for Ree, her honest, uncorrupted spirit in stark contrast to the endemic criminality of the community.