Two novels that explore similar themes of poverty and the drug culture in rural Kentucky are Ghosting by Kirby Gann and Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. The novels begin with a similar premise: a relative close to the protagonist is missing. In Winter’s Bone, Ree Dolly must find her missing father before his next court date or their house will be re-possessed. In Ghosting, James Cole’s older brother, Fleece Skaggs, has disappeared along with thousands of dollars worth of drugs that didn’t belong to him. In both novels, the protagonists are forced to take on the debt of their family, in order to protect themselves and their remaining family members. Dee has to find her father in order to provide for her mentally ill mother and two younger brothers. James decides to take over his brother’s role as driver for the drugpin Lawrence Gruel, almost as atonement for his brother’s sin. Both novels end on a similarly ambiguous note, and this is successful mostly because of the gritty and realistic life the two novels depict.
There is little sentimentality in Dee and James. Dee has had to live on the bare necessities of life, not just in terms of food and shelter, but also in terms of dreams and hopes. She dreams of joining the army, but she easily lets that dream go when she realizes she has to stay behind and care for her family. Without her, her family would have nowhere to live and nothing to eat. She might be only sixteen, but she is wise beyond her years.
James Cole is similar to Dee in many respects; he too has managed to avoid the drama and drugs that have plagued his family. His brother seemed to come out of the womb seeking trouble and fearing nothing. James, in contrast, has dreamed of scuba diving school. He has plans to escape the hardscrabble life that has held his family to this undesirable part of Kentucky. Both Dee and James dream of a way out – and both are forced into the murkiest part of the world they so desperately want to escape out of a sense of loyalty to their families.
Both novels have similar subplots too. One of the driving forces in both novels is the mystery surrounding Dee’s father and James’ brother – what happened to Jessup Dolly and Fleece Skaggs? It would seem that to have a satisfying ending, both books would need to address this issue. With both Dee and James sacrificing their own happiness, it would surely be a letdown to the reader to be left with any ambiguity about the fates of Dee’s father and James’ brother.
And yet the novels never fully resolve these mysteries for the reader. Dee finds her father – at the bottom of a lake. In a final chilling scene, she uses a chain saw to chop off his hands so she can prove that Jessup is dead, and hasn’t simply skipped bail. But who killed him remains a mystery. Ghosting remains even more vague – what happened to Fleece is never resolved, and the novel ends with Fleece’s ex-girlfriend and James’ sort of girlfriend Shady Beck left alone, with both Fleece and James now missing. Did they meet similar endings? Did James manage to escape from the oppressive drug culture and land safely on his feet somewhere else?
How can these ambiguous endings be satisfying? How can such an ending leave the reader with a sense of understanding in the novel? This can be partly answered due to the very nature of the world in which both Dee and James inhabit. They live in the gray areas of life; both families move outside the circle of the law. Both James and Dee have seen and experienced violence and cruelty on a nearly unimaginable level. Their whole lives have been part of a culture unto itself; living outside the law means that rules are constantly being adapted and changed. What matters most is whether you are on the right side of the family and the people who run the community – not whether you are on the right side of the law. Because of these gray areas, it makes sense that there isn’t a tidy ending to these novels.
In spite of this ambiguity, both novels end on a cautiously hopeful note. Both Dee and James had to enter the underworld of their families in order to escape. The last line of Ghosting is Shady Beck thinking, “And what is it she wants, that any of them wanted from this life? Life. Life and more life” (Gann 286). Winter’s Bone ends with Dee and her family getting to remain in the house; they are also allowed to keep the bond money that was posted for Jessup. When Dee’s brother Sonny asks her what they’ll do with the money, Dee says, “Wheels” (Woodrell 193), which is the final sentence of the novel. Dee doesn’t fulfill her dream of escaping into the army. We don’t know if James fulfills his dream of diving school. And yet we accept these endings because they feel as real and true as the unsentimental worlds that both Gann and Woodrell beautifully depict. There is a starkness to the lives of these characters that allow for a similarly sparse ending.
Gann, Kirby. Ghosting. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing, 2012.
Woordrell, Daniel. Winter’s Bone. New York: Back Bay Books-Little, Brown and Company, 2006.