In his first novel in seven years, Daniel Woodrell, author of the acclaimed Winter’s Bone (2006) and The Outlaw Album (2011), returns to his beloved Ozarks with a ghostly tale about a mysterious explosion at a rural Missouri dance hall in 1929 that left over 40 people dead.
It’s a departure for Woodrell, whose previous nine books have mostly focused on the hard-bitten lives of the rural poor. The Maid’s Version, based on a true story from the author’s family history, broadens his scope with an intimate look at the interwoven, ever-changing fortunes of both the well-heeled and the sorely underprivileged of fictional West Table, Missouri.
The maid of the title, Alma DeGeer Dunahew, lost her younger sister in the disaster, long suspected to have been no accident. After hiding her suspicions for decades to avoid repercussions, Alma gets the opportunity to finally unburden herself when her 12-year-old grandson, Alek, is sent to spend the summer with her in 1965.
As she puts it, “Times there ain’t nothin’ for it, but a body must hie to the toothache tree and scrape hisself a cure.”
At first Alma spooks the hell out of Alek, especially her witchy white hair, uncut in memory of her sister’s death: “As long as her story,” he remembers, it “dragged the floor like the train of a medieval gown and she had to gather it into a sheaf and coil it around her forearm several times to walk the floor without stepping on herself.” His main impression is that she “belonged in a fairy tale of some sort, and maybe not the happy kind.”
But the two hit it off when Alma decides to share her personal account of the Arbor Dance Hall explosion — a gruesome spectacle in which “forty-two dancers … had perished in an instant, waltzing couples murdered midstep, blown toward the clouds in a pink mist chased by towering flames.”
Alek is enthralled, but he quickly learns there’s more to Alma’s story than the thrill of smoking bodies and far-flung body parts — an unsolved crime stokes the fire of his grandmother’s bitter feud with West Table. Moreover, as the title suggests, hers is not the only version of events. Alma’s son, Alek’s father, offers a different perspective more in keeping with the town’s attitude — let bygones be bygones — until an eerie churchyard incident convinces him otherwise.
Seen through scraps and snatches of memory, as told by Alma to her grandson during rambling walks around town, the community portraits that emerge are as memorably haunting as any Depression-era photography by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange.
Alma’s sister, Ruby, a sultry backwater flapper, sashays off the page with her ’20s slang and her Cleopatra bob. A desperate flirt who trades her favors for gifts but refuses money, Ruby doesn’t “mind breaking hearts, but she liked them to shatter coolly, with no ugly scenes.” Unfortunately, one of those hearts belongs to Alma’s boss, wealthy Arthur Glencross. A married bank president with a delicate wife and two children, he takes a shine to the fickle Ruby and relies on Alma to set up their assignations. In turn, he’s happy to look the other way when Alma sneaks his children’s leftovers home to feed her three hungry boys.
Further eroding the barrier between the haves and have-nots, Alma’s estranged husband, Buster, a ne’er-do-well alcoholic long ago banned from his own home, gets newly sober just long enough to take a job as Glencross’ chauffeur, driving him to his clandestine trysts with Ruby.
The book teems with life, an entire community and its history packed into the space of what amounts, at 165 pages, to a novella. Woodrell’s lyric prose, marrying the Old Testament to courtly Elizabethan syntax and backwoods brogue, gives voice to everyone from the sympathetic Russian gardener who takes in Alek’s homeless father as a child, to the reformed gang member who owns the garage beneath the dance hall. He fleshes out the dance-hall explosion with a handful of colorful suspects — gypsies, a fun-hating “jackleg preacher,” gangsters and ex-cons — and wistful, eloquent vignettes of some of those who died in the blast, like 15-year-old Dimple Powell, who practiced dancing with her pillow, alone in her room, for weeks before the dance.
Throughout it all, Woodrell continually points at how the catastrophe crossed social boundaries, “spared no class or faith, cut into every neighborhood and congregation, spread sadness with an indifferent aim.” As Alek gradually unspools the sources of his grandmother’s bitter vendetta, he must reconcile the evidence with his father’s gratitude to the very family Alma blames for her own tragedy.
In the end, no clear answer to the mystery emerges, but we don’t need one. In the morally complex universe of The Maid’s Version, forgiveness and redemption lie not in punishing the guilty but in bringing all the facts to light, thereby restoring the humanity of a community once devastated by losses greater than it could bear.