Winter’s Bone is named for an old saying. To “throw someone a bone” is to give her a scrap of kindness, a small favor out of one’s larger store.
To give less, in other words, than one could ultimately afford to give.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) and her family live on the bones and scraps of contemporary American society. Her meth-cooking father is missing. Her mother has retreated into the dark landscape of her own mind. The 17-year-old girl is acting head of the household. We see her cooking dinner, walking her younger siblings to school, looking wistfully at the other teens in classes.
And then comes the news that sends her off on her own Hero’s Journey: the news that if her father does not appear in court, the family will be thrown out of the house and off the land he pledged as bail.
The eviction from the family land would be a death sentence for the family unit. This isn’t urban America, where one apartment is pretty much the same as another. This would be the severing of roots on a physical and metaphysical level.
It’s something I’ve sensed in my own life, and which Orion Foxwood writes about in The Faery Teachings. Our ancestors and the Fey mingle together in the afterworld. We commune with both through eating the fruits of the land, and by sending our physical forms back into it after death. This physical connection helps the Fey beings connect with us and us with them.
Orion notes, and I agree, that the keening, nameless sense of loss so many of us feel is the result of our disconnect from the family lands. And from not eating food from outside our new doorsteps, which would enhance our connection to the spirits of our new places.
Ree and her kin hunt game in their woods. The woods also provide fruit and vegetable forage. Gardens would supplement those foods. The strong spiritual and material connection is shown in Ree’s refusal to sell the land to timber speculators when it seems she’ll lose it anyway. It’s shown in the nightmare that comes as she sleeps uneasily after a savage beating intended to discourage her from asking more questions about her father’s whereabouts.
Ree isn’t haunted by his ghost, or by her human tormentors. Her nightmare is the sound of trees being cut down by chainsaws.
I wonder whether living on the land that has known the Dolly family for generations made family ties more important. Or whether it is an ancestral memory from the family’s Pagan forbears.
The first European-American Ozark settlers came west from Appalachia at the beginning of the 19th century. They were followed by Irish and German immigrants, making the population predominantly German, English and Scotch-Irish today. Those cultures in Europe are the ones which gave us the Celtic Pagan and Heathen traditions. Those faith traditions place high value on family connection, honor and self-reliance—as do the cultures that evolved in Appalachia and the Ozarks.
Every time Ree asks someone about her absent father, she appeals to blood ties. She repeatedly points out that she has not betrayed the family honor by talking to law enforcement or asking the sheriff’s help. She is careful to say that she does not ask her father’s fate to seek vengeance; she merely wants to be able to hold on to her home so that she can continue taking care of her mother, sister and brother.
In the end, her adherance to the ancient code of honor is what saves her. In one of the film’s more mythically resonant scenes, two of the crones who’d earlier beaten Ree unconscious take the girl to a backwoods lake. There, they glide across the waters in a johnboat to collect the evidence that will satisfy the law and allow Ree to redeem her home.
If the scene had included a couple crows, a banshee and a three-headed dog, I would not have been a bit surprised.
That underworld journey completes Ree’s initiation into adulthood in a way that is horrible and cruel. And yet, it’s the scrap of kindness that allows her to save the family home and those inside it—so long as she is willing to keep her silence. It’s a hard life and a cold truth that Ree faces as the movie ends.
Hard and cold as a bone in winter.