Jack's Reviews > Woe to Live On

Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell
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's review
Dec 05, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: reallygoodstuff
Recommended to Jack by: Seeing the film version "Ride with the Devil"
Recommended for: Those with a heartbeat: males perhaps in particular
Read in November, 2008

I have wanted to read this book from the moment I saw Ang Lee’s film version, Ride with the Devil. And last winter I read Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, the first Woodrell book that I have read, and it had me hot, once again to read Woe. I finally checked it out of the library as it is now ‘out of print, and I read it over Thanksgiving. Loved it.

Ang Lee and his screenwriter very carefully followed Woe, and much of the movie’s dialoge comes directly from its pages.

My review:

Thousands of authors have written the American Civil War from nearly every conceivable point of view. Daniel Woodrell, in his novel Woe to Live on, rides into one of the war’s most obscure, but particularly significant fronts. More than five years before Southern guns fired upon Fort Sumter, terror reigned on the Kansas-Missouri border. It lasted for almost ten years.

Woodrell’s story, particularly apropos in our post 9-11 world, follows 16 year old Jake Roedel and the group of “irregulars” he rides with. Jake’s “bushwacker” band of Missouri southerners fight against the Jayhawkers. Both of these groups of American terrorists commit atrocities with routine regularity. In Woe’s opening chapter, Jake shoots a young ‘Union’ boy in the back, “I gave no warning but the cocking of my Navy Colt and booked the boy passage with his father.” Jake shoots him with an air of everyday nonchalance, “Pups make hounds." Thus Woodrell presents his narrating protagonist, details this despicable act, and then proceeds to gradually build Jake into a person worth caring about.

Hatred festered not just with these loosely organized, pseudo-military bands, but also became endemic within the border’s citizenry as well. Bands roamed, clashing with each other and burning-out or murdering each’s citizen sympathizers. “These boys wore death like a garnish; it had no terror for them,” Jake explains of the bushwackers he rides with. “The Federals had crossed over the last line of restraint. And believe you me, we were the wrong tribe to treat in that fashion." Unbridled revenge upon revenge made morality an unaffordable luxury.

From this atmosphere of evil and hate, Woodrell fashions a number of sympathetic characters, ones with humanity and a set of war-tattered ethics. Jake befriends Holt, an African American, who, due to a bizarre set of allegiances, fights for the South.

“’Holt, do you reckon this war will ever end?’


‘Me neither,’ I said. ‘Not unless we are killed.’

‘Oh, yes,’ he said, and patted his pistols. ‘That would do it. I left that out.’

‘You reckon we’ll be killed?’

‘Mmmmm,’ he went, and I really liked him, for a nigger. ‘Old men is not a way I ever figure us to be.’”

Woodrell allows Jake’s opinion of blacks and slavery to transform through his growing relationship with Holt. He feathers the change gradually, rendering plausibility.

Woodrell provides Jake with a convoluted love interest in Sue Lee Shelly, whose Confederate soldier husband was killed after three weeks of marriage. “I was not used to women except for mothers. Everything I did, they did different." Jake’s experience with women leaves much to be desired:
“’Are you a virgin?’

‘I’ve sinned plenty,’ I told her.

‘But have you ever bedded a woman before?’

‘Girl, I’ve killed fifteen men.’”

Like Jake’s friendship with Holt, Woodrell makes this love more cogent through a step-by-step evolution.

Jake’s band rides with William Quantrill on the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas. “It figured to be a bitter killing spree … a vigorous form of mass suicide,” but when they arrived, they discovered “no legions of soldiers and damn few Jayhawkers.” There were “only bad-luck citizens finding out just how bad luck can be."

In Jake, Woodrell proffers an uneducated, but bright and observant storyteller with wit and heart. “I guess a woman wants a man in wartime. While there still are any. People in hell want springwater." He describes a thunderstorm: “It was a dark, majestic eruption, and it made one feel tiny and squashable." On Holt: he “looked the same in a hot spot as he did sleeping. Anything he thought hardly ever made it to where it showed.” And also, “Laughs were the only sounds Holt made in two days. He kept his tongue well rested."

Jake’s child-like wit keeps popping to the surface in the midst of grim surroundings: He observes “the great smiley head of the sun drool light into the country,” and Jake offers other colorful descriptions, such as “Old Evans cranked his feet up to the pace of a scared turtle."
With simple eloquence, Daniel Woodrell evokes from our nation’s history, an example of rampant terrorism. Through Jake Roedel, he illustrates how good people, when tormented and victimized, may resort to evil deeds while still maintaining a sense of morality. Woodrell leaves us wanting more.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Sabelmouse to say i loved winter's bone does not descibe it. hated the film though. i am just reading woe. i find it awefully brutal. i do hope the film of that is as good as you say, that would be a nice change.

message 2: by Jack (last edited Feb 13, 2011 10:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jack Sabel,
The film blew me away. Ang Lee is a stellar director and the cast is outstanding, several were already stars and several (Toby Maguire, Jonathin Rhys Meyers, etc.) became stars afterward. And Jewel is remarkably good in her only(?) film appearance. Lee smartly leaves out the book's opening sequence where they kill the Unionist father and son.
I have since read Woodrell's "The Death of Sweet Mister" which was not as good as "Woe" or "Bone" but was a worthwhile read. Let me know what you thought of the book once you finish it.

Sabelmouse i have hopes for the film because it is ang lee. he leaves the opening out though. seems to me that is an important part in understanding the character/s and situation. hmmm. i supose jewel gets to do more in the film than the book ?
i liked the book a lot once i got over the brutallity and got used to the syntax.
people speak differently in misourie and in those days even more so it seems.
i actually needed quiet to read it. sweet mister too. tomat read and winter's bone are easier.
that man can sure draw well. i like writers that make me see the story as i think in pictures anyway.

i found sweet mister a little disturbing and creepy by the way.
i am now reading tomato red and am looking foreward to the bayou trilogy.

Sabelmouse i have just watched the film. wow. i rarely like a film based on a book i liked but this is one of those times. what a great job they did.
would that they had done winter's bone.

i even agree with you on the opening scene.

Jack Wow, I should have married you! My wife never agrees with anything I say. Seriously, she did like the movie, and we bought the DVD.

I loved Jeffrey Wright as Holt and have watched for him since. He's been a "friendly" spy in the new Daniel Craig James Bond films.

And Jonathan Rhys Meyers was an exquisite bad guy as Pitt Macheson.

Sabelmouse she didn't like the movie ? my daughter loves it which is great as we are watching it together and i'd told her about the book.
it's a great relief since she' had to put up with my ranting about winter's bone for weeks.

i like jefrey right too. i am fond of toby maguire though, very fond. i always wanted to see that film.

rhyss meyers is pretty good though.

Heather Wonderful review! I was lucky enough to be an extra in this film when I was 14. The Lawrence raid scenes were filmed in my hometown. I read the book before filming and, even at 14, loved it. The book and filming experience is a large part of what got me interested in history. I'm so glad someone else enjoyed it as much as I did, most local people that i know who have read the book, or watched the movie, hated it. :( I loved it for its very accurate portrayal of life during the Border War.

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