Contributed by Kathryn Bashaar
A year or so ago, I happened to read two books in a row that were startlingly similar. Both took place in the rural Midwest, and both had strong female protagonists whose lives were very hard. Where life for Edith Goodnough in Kent Haruf’s The Tie that Binds is hard but decent, life for Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell’s A Winter's Bone is just plain hard, and it would be an understatement to say that most of the people in her life are indecent. Ree's extended family in the Ozarks are basically a very nasty primitive tribe, and merciless to anyone who reveals their secrets or shows disloyalty.
The similarity that intrigued me most about the two books, though, was that both of these women suffered hard lives because they chose to stay put and take care of people they loved.
Elderly Edith made the decision to stay on the family farm and care for her angry, disabled father, after her mother died and her brother abandoned the family. Later, she made the commitment to care for her brother when he returned to the family farm and descended into dementia.
Sixteen-year-old Ree chose to take responsibility for her out-to-lunch mother and her younger siblings. She then takes it upon herself to try to find her father when she is notified that he has jumped bond – and that her family is about to lose their home because it was collateral for the bond.
Both Edith (in her youth) and Ree had other choices that they couldn’t even see, so determined were they to take care of their loved ones. I think women do tend to sacrifice ourselves to our families. Daughters, not sons, are still the most likely caregivers for elderly parents. Single mothers often care for their children with ferocious determination, even when abandoned by the children’s father. I don’t want to ignore the many men who also make sacrifices for their families, but the heroines of these two similar books were very poignant to me as a woman because I think we are more driven, by biology or culture or both, to STAY as Ree and Edith did and as them men in their families did not.
Both of these characters had a beautiful, fierce dignity and integrity in the face of their troubles. I felt sorrier for Ree. Edith had the advantage of living in a strong community where her stoicism and service were noticed and admired by many of her neighbors. Ree’s life was completely stark and brutal, without the advantage of any decent community or good examples whatsoever. Ultimately, though, both women had to make very hard moral choices, which, in my opinion, is what makes a book (and a human being, for that matter) great.
About Kathryn Bashaar
Kathryn is based out of Pittsburgh, PA. Her essays and short stories have been published in the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, the Civil War Times, and the literary journal Metamorphosis. Follow Kathryn's blog at www.kathrynbashaar.com.