Daniel Woodrell’s Novel, "Woe to Live on" Rings True Historically
Hearing about my historical novel, The Lies That Bind, Anne Sanow, the visiting guest writer at the University of Missouri-St. Louis where I teach writing as an adjunct, recommended that I read Woe to Live on by Daniel Woodrell. That turned out to be one of the best suggestions I'd gotten in quite a while. I’m a big Woodrell fan now for sure.
You might know of Woodrell from his earlier novel, Winter’s Bone, which was made into a great film, shot entirely in Missouri with a cast including a number of amateurs. I thought the film was the best of the year at that time, and "Winter’s Bone" earned 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence an Academy Award nomination. Quite an honor for a low-budget film, and Lawrence deserved it for her performance, which made her career. Great book, great film, too.
Anyway, Woe to Live on takes place on the Missouri-Kansas border during the Civil War, same time and place as the upcoming second book in my DarkHorse Trilogy, Honor Among Outcasts. I’ve already written about the border guerrilla war being the vilest, most dehumanizing part of the war—much like today’s Syrian civil car. In 1999, director Ang Lee made an excellent film based on Woe to Live on, called “Ride with the Devil,” starring Toby Maguire.
There's a nice twist on the point of view in Woe to Live on. Jake Roedel is the lead character, and he is entirely out of place as a 16-year-old, pro-secession guerrilla. He is lured by his best friend, Jack Bull Chiles, the son of old Southern gentry, to join Black Jack Ambrose’s mounted “Irregulars.” Jake Roedel is second-generation German, what the guerrillas called “Dutch” from the word “Deutsch.” The Germans in Missouri, fleeing persecution in Germany and seeking democracy in America, were very pro-Union and anti-slavery, and the rebel guerrillas hated and readily killed them, even innocent civilians. Lincoln received 10 percent of the votes in the four-way 1860 presidential race in Missouri, and most of those votes were German.
One reviewer describes the book as “brutal yet poignant, ironic and spiked with earthy, irreverent humor.” As the story advances, Jake learns a great deal: his side in the war, knowing defeat of the Confederacy is coming, turns to mostly murder and robbery.
I’m not going to give much away. Interestingly, though, the book begins ironically. Riding with the guerrillas, Jake shows he belongs by hanging an innocent German, a man like the very people he comes from, like his own father. Even worse, he murders the man’s young son when the boy tries to cut his father down, shooting the unarmed boy in the back. Nasty stuff in a nasty conflict.
Inspiring writing. I recommend Woe to Live for all history buffs.
March 31: LA Talk Radio “The Writer's Block” - live interview and podcast
April 28: Reading/Signing at Subterranean Books in the Loop, St. Louis
June 23: Reading/Signing at Left Bank Books, Central West End, St. Louis