A Classic Novel & Modern Novel Pairing: Where the Lilies Bloom (1969) and Winter’s Bone (2006)

In the winter of my first year in college, I met a fellow student who had just returned from a six month long trek of the length of the Appalachian trail.  He had taken a leave of absence from his third year at university to make the solo trek.  He hiked from Georgia to Maine, carefully outfitted and tightly scheduled in order to avoid injury or even death.  I was enthralled, not necessarily just by his hiking experience, but because of the possibility of solitude in a still-wild place here in the US.

My initial curiosity grew into an ethnographic journey.  Populated by a culturally distinct people with long lineage of great historical significance, the Appalachian region and neighboring Ozarks region are the wild, near-forgotten places that the featured novels are set.  With nearly 60 years separating the stories, the circumstances of the characters in each story are remarkably similar.  Even more striking are the similar defining characteristics of the main characters; characteristics that are identifiable to the inhabitants of these rough and wild regions.

Where the Lilies Bloom – Vera & Bill Cleaver

Lexile: 920  ATOS: 6.0

New York Times Outstanding Book
National Book Award Finalist
School Library Journal Best Book
ALA Notable Children’s Book

“These mountains are reckoned to be two billion, five hundred million years old.  Surely the earth must be tired of supporting them.  Spring won’t come again.  How can it?  Everything is so frozen.  Romey was right; this is forgotten land.  The Lord has forgotten us.  We are forgotten people.” – Where the Lilies Bloom (Cleaver, 1969)

Where the Lilies Bloom (Vera & Bill Cleaver, 1969) is the story of Mary Call Luther, a 14 year old Appalachian girl, who struggles to keep her family alive and unharmed in the face of unthinkable hardship.  After the death of their mother, Mary Call and her three siblings are raised by their proud yet kind-hearted father until he too becomes unceasingly ill.  Mary Call takes on the role of family leader, family protector, and the progenitor of the Luther family’s values and pride.

Armed with the inherited knowledge to forage for valuable edible and medicinal plants and roots, and the resilience earned from being the daughter of a share-cropper, Mary Call helps her family to thrive against all odds.  This is a story of family loyalty and pride, strength and perseverance, and a glimpse at the tough-as-nails character of a culturally distinct people.

Where the Lilies Bloom is a personal narrative novel, spanning approximately 175 pages.  The story is told in the common speech of the 14 year old protagonist, which makes for a relatively easy read.  The challenge for the reader is in the use of regionalisms, or descriptions that are culturally or historically distinct.  This is an emotionally intense story with which most readers can either empathize or identify on some level – abject poverty, abandonment or loss of parent, family loyalty, a struggle to thrive.  While the Lexile suggests an audience of late elementary or early middle school students, this range can be extended to include readers in late middle school and high school.  While the overall complexity of the writing might not challenge the more advanced readers, the emotional intensity of the story encourages empathy, introspection, and a deep consideration of the human condition.

Winter’s Bone – Daniel Woodrell

Lexile: 925   ATOS: 6.0

Booklist’s Editors’ Choice – Best Fiction Books: 2006
YALSA Best books for Young Adults: 2007
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell Image retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1696301.Winter_s_Bone

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell Image retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1696301.Winter_s_Bone

Winter’s Bone (Daniel Woodrell, 2006) is the story of Ree Dolly, a 17 year old girl who is faced with the imminent loss of the family home, and the consequent task of finding her reckless, criminal father who – dead or alive – is the family’s only salvation.  With the clock ticking, Ree sets out on a harrowing journey to find her father whose bad decisions and abandonment had long ago left Ree in charge of her family’s survival.  Navigating the criminal and ruthless world of her closed and impoverished community in the Ozarks, Ree reveals her true grit.  Fierce and fearless, Ree defies the uncompromising rules and the cruel environment of the community that raised her to ensure the survival of her younger siblings.

At 193 pages, Winter’s Bone is a comfortable read.  With a Lexile of 925 (ATOS 6.0), Winter’s Bone would be suitable for later middle school and high school readers.  This title is not recommended for immature audiences due to content that can be more mature or graphic in nature.  Written in third-person, the writing style and vocabulary are not exceptionally complex, but Woodrell offers some powerfully descriptive prose, intermingled with gritty dialogue, creating a reading experience that can be quite enriching for a teen audience.

“Ree followed a path made by prey uphill through scrub, across a bald knob and downhill into a section of pine trees and pine scent and that pious shade and silence pines create. Pine trees in low limbs spread over fresh snow made a stronger vault for the spirit than pews and pulpits ever could.” – Winter’s Bone (Woodrell, 2006)

It is the emotionally intense and gritty story that will grab the reader’s attention, and hold it through the end.  Similar to the uber-popular dystopian novels of the early 21st century, Winter’s Bone carries the reader into a parallel world where the rules are recondite and everyday lives are unthinkably harrowing, yet the expressions of the human condition are unmistakably clear and familiar.  This is a story of the uncompromising side of family loyalty, of the strength and determination not to be swallowed up by chronic abject poverty, and of pride in self as well as one’s heritage.

Both Where the Lilies Bloom and Winter’s Bone can be the focus of instruction in contemporary American literature, but also integrated into instruction in American history, particularly of the Inland South region and its communities.  Both novels compliment instruction on the impacts and structure of share-cropping or subsistence farming, impacts of coal mining, the impacts of diverting railways from the rugged terrain of the Appalachian mountain range, and the resulting development of distinct cultural characteristics among the largely isolated populations of the region.


American (2011). Crosswalk of the common core standards and the standards for the 21st-century Learner. Huron St. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/commoncorecrosswalk/pdf/CrosswalkEnglishStandardAll1-4.pdf

American (2011). Crosswalk of the common core standards and the standards for the 21st-century Learner reading standards in history all AASL standards common core crosswalk. Huron St. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/commoncorecrosswalk/pdf/ReadinginHistoryAllStandards.pdf

Cleaver, V., Cleaver, B., & Spanfeller, J. J. (1970). Where the lilies bloom. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co.

Woodrell, D. (2006). Winter’s bone: A novel. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

Some other avenues for learning:

Socio-cultural explorations

  • AASL Standards
    • 1.1.6 Read, view, and listen for information presented in any format (e.g., textual, visual, media, digital) in order to make inferences and gather meaning
    • 1.1.7 Make sense of information gathered from diverse sources by identifying misconceptions, main and supporting ideas, conflicting information, and point of view or bias.
  • CCSS
    • CC6-8RH/SS1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
    • CC6-8RH/SS6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose
    • CC6-8RH/SS9 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

Missouri State University Libraries (2014, May 13). A portrait of the Ozarks part I – Shannon County: Home Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1R36AjgyGI&feature=youtu.be

Missouri State University Libraries (2014, May 13). A portrait of the Ozarks part II – Shannon County: Hearts of the children Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ro4nSqls_bs&feature=youtu.be

Forged In Ulster (2014, May 22). The Appalachians: The Scotch-Irish Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHOyYQ0Wm_I&feature=youtu.be

Geographical explorations

  • AASL Standards
    • 1.2.3 Demonstrate creativity by using multiple resources and formats.
  • CCSS
    • CC11-12RH/SS7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media

IIP Digital Embassy: Appalachia and the Ozarks

*Both Where the Lilies Bloom and Winter’s Bone have been made into feature films.*



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