The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown and Company; 176 pages; $25).
No one brings the Ozarks region to life like Daniel Woodrell, critically acclaimed author of Winter’s Bone. Woodrell’s newest work The Maid’s Version explores the causes and repercussions of a dance hall fire in West Table, Missouri, in 1929, in which 42 people were killed. The bodies were so horrifically burned that loved ones identified many victims only by the trinkets and effects they left behind. Woodrell ably illustrates how tragedy knows no income level and can reverberate through many generations.
Woodrell’s masterful talents are on full and prominent display in The Maid’s Version as he mines the depths of real history in this novel. A similar and equally dreadful catastrophe occurred in a dance hall in West Plains, Missouri, in 1928. The explosion took the lives of 39 men and women; the cause of the fire still remains a mystery.
In The Maid’s Version, Alma DeGeer Dunahew thinks she has the answers. Alma, mother of three young boys, wife to a husband who is mostly absent, and maid to a prominent family, lost her outrageous but much-loved sister in the explosion. Convinced her sister’s illicit love affair with a powerful and very married man caused the fire, Alma upsets a lot of people and opens wounds that never healed. Her long and fierce quest for the truth alienates her from those in her community and in her own family.
Years later, she tells all to her beloved grandson, urging him, “Tell it. Go on and tell it.” Alma is illiterate, and his words are her words. It is a very powerful thing as his separation and distance from the awful event set him apart. He is unbiased; he is meticulous; he is her proxy.
Woodrell superbly juxtaposes the end of the carefree and spirited 1920s with the dance hall fire followed by the Great Depression. When tragedy first strikes the town, it never leaves as dejection, suspicion, and fear envelope the community. Since The Maid’s Version is a fictionalized version of an actual historical event, the story becomes even more compelling because it is painfully real and stunningly rendered. With spare prose, unforgettable characters, and a setting that fully captures the period, The Maid’s Version is a quick read but one that lingers and deeply satisfies.